There's a certain kind of comedy that I find more anxiety-provoking than actually funny. Cable Guy is one that would fall into that category, though maybe not completely. Critic Gerald Mast would classify it as a reductio ad absurdum plot, where “a single mistake in the opening minutes leads inexorably to final chaos” (“Comic Films” 227). Here, Matthew Broderick, as always, playing himself, befriends the cable installer, being kind against his better judgment. The cable guy (Jim Carrey) at first seems like a geeky, clingy guy with poor social skills, but as Broderick finds out, he's actually big trouble and ends up causing Broderick to be arrested, lose his job, and almost lose his girl (as well as the respect of his family).
What is it that bothers me about these reductio ad absurdum plots? Well, first is their utter obviousness. Just as Mast says, within the first moments of the story, we already see how it will end, that a series of disasters lie ahead, that things can only get worse for our hero, the mensch. At that point, I always think, oh ferchrissakes, why even bother watching? I know what's coming. I've grasped the entire film in a mere 30 seconds. Why watch any more? Life all by itself is stressful enough. All I do is wring my hands and anticipate disaster. That's no fun.
Perhaps another aspect of Cable Guy that troubles little old sentimental me is that it's kind of sad. Matthew Broderick's character, since he seems to be so typecast, feels very real, a nice, gentle guy who wants to do the right thing and be kind to someone who seems to be a loser. Hell, who knows, maybe the cable guy will improve his social skills and be okay in the long run. There's no dialogue that says this, but haven't we all thought this at one point or another about another person? Then, the Jim Carrey character is very well played, meaning that, for Carrey, the character isn't overplayed at all. He's a truly geeky guy with an under-bite and a lisp. Frankly it's ironic that Carrey, a personal favorite, isn't especially funny here. I imagine Stiller, in considering casting decisions, snickering over the joke of Carrey, usually over-the-top funny, being kind of silly but also a sad sort here. It's clever, even if it didn't happen. Anyway, ultimately, I find him pretty sad, even though I think that I'm supposed to laugh at him. The problem is that Carrey makes him too human for me to laugh. So I'm frustrated because I see what's coming, and I sort of like the characters too much to want to endure the agony.
And...so...but...it isn't that simple. I had forgotten an important element of this movie: Ben Stiller directed it, and this second time that I watched it (now that I know more about Ben Stiller from movies like Zoolander and The Royal Tennenbaums) I realized that Stiller had carefully introduced a whole subplot (as well as a few of his favorite comedy geniuses) to distract the audience from the sadness of the story. The subplot interrupts various TV-watching scenes in the film (of which there are many) and consists entirely of Court TV updates on an ongoing (fictional) trial case in which a child star murdered his twin brother (both played by Stiller). Stiller even goes so far as to show an ersatz movie promo of a film starring Eric Roberts as the twin brothers. The whole thing is a little absurd, but it's funny, especially when one considers it in the context of the time when this was written and produced: 1996, shortly after the Menendez brothers trial (for killing their parents) and the O.J. Simpson trial. Anyone who was conscious through that era knows that the level of intrusion of these court cases into the popular culture has been almost unmatched (in idiocy) since. Stiller also entertains us with his cast of comic genius pals, friends from his short lived (but brilliant) comedy sketch show on MTV. Andy Dick plays the knight at the medieval theme restaurant and Bob Odenkirk plays Broderick's brother in the family scenes. And Owen Wilson, ubiquitous in today's comic films, plays Broderick's girlfriend's date in what might have been his first role. Same for Jack Black, who plays a minor character in the first film I remember him in. (According to IMDB.com, both actually had played in previous films, but nothing you or I would have seen.) These great comedians cannot help but be hilarious and that helps break the anxiety I feel as a result of the larger plot and the sadness I feel about the loser characters.
Anyway, even though this is one movie that sort of irks me in its predictability, I do think it's worth considering for the dark comedy film class. It makes a good statement on the state of the popular culture in the late 1990s, and it's an interesting use of the subplot. And if nothing else we can gaze in awe at the handiwork of Ben Stiller, who directed this when he was 31. Wow. Famous parents or not, we must concede that Ben Stiller is nauseatingly talented.