Annoying Movie Characters
Plenty of revered comedians have wrung laughs out of dodging a bully. As the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin loved to stoke sympathy by kowtowing to — and then outfoxing — some pushy cop or waiter, and Lucille Ball summoned her loudest laugh-track roars trembling at the wrath of control freak Ricky.
But what’s an audience to do when a superstar comic decides to be the bully, asking us to hoot it up at the ritual browbeating of some poor lamb who never does rise up from the slaughter? That’s the gambit Jim Carrey tried in his seriously unhinged summer comedy The Cable Guy, which, though now mercifully scaled down to TV-screen size, remains about as funny as a nervous breakdown. Carrey’s lonesome installer tortures — and I mean tortures — Milquetoast yuppie Steven (Matthew Broderick) by invading his apartment, terrorizing his friends, and finally taking over his life. Fittingly, the very premise is a rerun: Carrey adapts the same pest-as-conquering-monster persona tried on for cinematic size by fellow TV-hatched comics Dan Aykroyd, in Neighbors, and Bill Murray, in What About Bob?. If you check out all three on a video triple bill, it’s clear as a direct satellite feed that somewhere between sarcasm and sadism, Carrey got his signals hopelessly scrambled.
Not that Neighbors isn’t a far worse debacle than The Cable Guy. Director John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid) makes a painfully inept ringmaster of comedy. John Belushi, looking distracted and listless as a buttoned-down suburban husband, barely interacts with Aykroyd, a blond boor who, with his salacious wife (a low-key Cathy Moriarty), invades Belushi’s home and commandeers his spouse, his car, his money, and his sanity. Belushi keeps slow boiling but declares every 10 minutes or so that he wants these cretins to stay and abuse him because he has no other friends. Viewers, fortunately, have other options.
What About Bob? has the all-close-ups-all-the-time look of a TV show, but with Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) directing, it goes beyond skit scale. The put-upon patsy here, psychiatrist Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss, masterfully evoking epic anger), deserves a good shaking up: He’s smug, vain, and thoughtless. Murray underplays adroitly as the needy patient who follows the doctor on vacation and worms his way into the man’s family. It’s a relief, after his automatic-pilot performance in Larger Than Life, to be reminded that Murray really is the movies’ drollest nutjob. Here he even makes ”false alarm” barfing funny not once but twice, hanging his head in priceless self-chastisement after grossing everybody out.
Get ready to feel your own surge of nausea, however, about one hour into The Cable Guy. That’s the moment at which Jim Carrey and director Ben Stiller decide to shift from ersatz Twilight Zone creepiness to flat-out Tarantinoid brutality. To shore up his ”pal” Steve’s chances of winning back an ex-girlfriend, Carrey’s creep impersonates a bathroom attendant and beats a potential rival senseless. Guys, is it really funny to watch a minor character get his nose hair plucked, his face jammed into a toilet (which we watch from inside the bowl), and his mouth forced around a handdryer nozzle until Carrey quips, ”You look just like Dizzy Gillespie”? Performed to a jacked-up jazz riff on the soundtrack, this scene and several subsequent Carrey-does-Carrie assaults, many of them pointlessly and tastelessly homoeroticized, pack as jarring a jolt in your living room as they did in multiplexes.
Only 21 years ago, the first roster of SNL comics exploded the limits of sicko humor on TV — and look how far we’ve come. Ever watched HBO’s hostile Def Comedy Jam? Humor is often about pushing limits, but as Woody Allen once wrote, ”If it breaks, it’s not funny.” A word of advice, Jim: Next time you make a pathological pest the main attraction, have him say uncle before the audience does. The Cable Guy: D Neighbors: F What About Bob?: B