Back in 1990 a Rob Reiner-directed horror thriller called Misery took an underappreciated actor named Kathy Bates and rocketed her to the top of the world. Her portrayal of the homely but psychotic Annie Wilkes got tons of critical praise, had the mainstream talking, and eventually won her a Best Actress Oscar.
In 1994 an oddball comedy named Ace Ventura: Pet Detective took a relatively obscure comedian named Jim Carrey and made him one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. That’s not the movie I’m going to be talking about though. The movie I’m going to talk about came two years later, it’s called The Cable Guy, and it was seen as the first disappointment of Carrey’s gigantic post Ace Ventura career. His portrayal of the troubled “Chip Douglas” didn’t register with critics or audiences who previously had no trouble accepting him as a pet detective that talked out of his butt, a walking cartoon character with a booger for a head, and a sociopath named Lloyd Christmas who sold a dead bird to a blind kid. Was Misery really that much better a movie than The Cable Guy? Was Bates’s performance as Annie really that much better than Carrey’s as the unnamed cable installer? Or is this just the case of a movie that was a little bit ahead of it’s time getting a bad rap?
What do they have in common?
Annie and the cable guy are both lonely characters that have filled their empty lives with a constant stream of media. They’ve overindulged in escapism to the point of obsession. Annie’s vice (other than Liberace records) is losing herself in a series of novels by a best-selling author. For the cable guy it’s absorbing and memorizing everything that he’s ever seen on television. The level of seriousness to which they take their entertainment is a problem in itself, but things get really bad when they find themselves with a chance to connect to other human beings.
For Annie, her chance comes when her favorite author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is in a major car accident just miles from her home and circumstances find him recuperating in her spare bedroom. For the cable guy it comes when he installs cable into the apartment of a guy too polite to tell him to just go away. For both characters these new relationships become even bigger obsessions than their media addictions, and eventually they find themselves acting beyond inappropriately, much to our horror/delight as an audience.
Why is Misery overrated?
First off, the entire setup of this movie is pretty ludicrous. The amount of coincidence that would need to happen in order for Paul Sheldon to always write his books in an inn just miles from his biggest, most obsessive fan, who happened to be following him the night he blindly rode out into a blizzard, when he happened to drive off of the road and break his legs, is pretty hard to get past. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not the sort of thing that’s impossible to ignore if a movie is fun, but for a highly regarded film that got a bunch of play during awards season it’s pretty lazy; no matter how much you try to explain it away by painting Annie as a stalker. I was but a wee babe when Misery came out, but I remember all of the talk of the time being about what an intense, crazy experience it was. But when you look at it with modern eyes, Misery is actually fairly absurd and kind of cheesy. And that includes Bates’s performance as Annie.
She’s got a lot of conviction in what she does, I’ll give her that, and I’m sure that’s where a lot of the praise comes from, but when I watch Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes I see a performance that is so over the top and showy that I find myself laughing at inappropriate times. The way in which she schizophrenically switches from being sugary sweet and colloquial to sadistic and vengeful in the blink of an eye can more often be hilarious than unnerving. If she had played things more subtle, if Annie had experienced a slow burn of insanity that increased bit by bit until a huge explosion at the end of the movie, then Misery might have actually been the supremely creepy film that it gets hailed as. But as it stands, with a hammy Kathy Bates flying back and forth between crazy and sane, it resembles a B level horror more than it does an Oscar winning classic.
And Misery can get boring. Most of the film is two people sitting in the same location having completely phony conversations with each other. There is no open conflict between the two characters who we spend all our time with. Other than Annie’s brief spats of rage the whole movie is fake smiles and false pleasantries. The only action you get is when every once in a while Annie goes into town and Sheldon crawls around on the floor accomplishing nothing. There’s a subplot where a octogenarian town sheriff heads a manhunt for Caan’s character, but it’s nothing scintillating. I’d most accurately describe it as an episode of Matlock on quaaludes. Then the film climaxes in a fist fight between a husky chick and a dude in a wheelchair that looks more ridiculous than anything else. Pretty much the whole movie is riding the coattails of one scene that’s over the top brutal and really hard to sit through. I’d like to see the folk who sing the praises of Misery try to get through something like Salò.
Why is The Cable Guy underpraised?
There was a tiny bit of Karma going on in Misery because Paul Sheldon was kind of a cocky jerk, and it wasn’t exactly awful to see him get tied up and tortured; but mostly the things he has to endure feel pretty random. The Cable Guy, while being a goofy comedy, feels like it has more of a purpose in the way it approaches its victim and the terrible things that happen to him. It takes classic film noir tropes and turns them on their head. You see, in noir tradition, once a protagonist has been morally compromised, once he goes against his own principles in order to achieve some sort of short term gain, it inevitably leads to a downward spiral of horrible experiences that ends with him broken and desolate. The same thing happens to the main character Steven (Matthew Broderick) here, but his only sin is to ask the cable guy for free movie channels in exchange for fifty bucks. It’s funny that such a small lapse leads to such a large catastrophe, but that’s just not a smart request to make when you’re dealing with “Larry Tate.” Ask anything of him, and you’ve made a friend for life. Plus he’s probably trying to rope you into playing out the plot of some movie he saw once.
And that’s what makes The Cable Guy fundamentally more interesting than Misery to me. The cable guy isn’t just tying Matthew Broderick up and forcing him to do anything he pleases. There is a game of cat and mouse going on here where he manipulates Steven into agreeing to pretty much everything that happens to him. Over the course of the film Steven digs himself a deeper and deeper hole with the cable guy, and it starts to become increasingly difficult to cut ties and leave the situation in a clean way. There are social rules in play here, you don’t just turn your back on your friends. There were no utensils in medieval times, hence there are no utensils at Medieval Times.
Carrey was a complete clown up until this film. He was spouting catch phrases and wearing ridiculous outfits, just going for the easy laugh, but as the cable guy he really brings the pathos. This character is over the top and crazy like his others, but this time all of the grandstanding is stemming from a place of darkness, not one of oblivious innocence. “Chip Douglas” or “Larry Tate” or whatever you want to call him is a deeply disturbed individual. He is someone who has been so thoroughly rejected by society that he has lost his sense of self completely and chosen to instead define his identity through a language of pop culture references. Probably those of us writing for and reading a website about movies can relate to that experience in some way, but back in ’96, when the constant onslaught of media wasn’t so pervasive, that relatability might not have been so clear to everyone.
Could The Cable Guy have experienced quite a bit more success if it were released, say, one year ago as The Social Network Guy instead? Regardless, no matter what era these two films got released in, the cable guy is a tragic figure whose misguided motivations I can find myself identifying with, while Annie Wilkes is just a complete psychopath who nobody could ever reasonably find themselves understanding.
Evening the Odds
That big moment in Misery, the hobbling scene, that’s what earned the movie its legendary status. And it’s amazing at afflicting its viewers with the physical mutilation heebie-jeebies. I can’t imagine anybody watching that scene without at least one eye hid behind their hands. Does The Cable Guy have anything to match it? I would say the scene where the cable guy makes Steven play porno password with his mother is just about as uncomfortable and nerve wracking as anything else in the universe. Try to put yourself in those shoes and come out unscathed. I’m just going to go ahead and say it, I think The Cable Guy is a more effective film than Misery. Don’t you agree? Wait, come back, everything was going so well. I made breakfast… scramby eggs!