They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about a certain movie at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the original critical reception of the 1996 Jim Carrey black comedy The Cable Guy.
In the mid-’90s, Jim Carrey was arguably the biggest movie star in the world. In 1994 alone, he had three films that racked up more than $100 million each at the box office. The following year Carrey would add two more to his resume that each eclipsed $200 million. Carrey’s success was primarily due to the schtick he had mastered. With the unique ability to contort his face in a million different ways, and a manic energy unmatched, Carrey blossomed into a slapstick specialist with the golden touch. Audiences flocked to see the actor talk from his ass or make the most annoying sounds possible. It was dumb, brainless fun, but it worked.
In 1996, at the peak of his powers, Carrey signed on to star in The Cable Guy, bagging a then-record $20 million payday. Ben Stiller was hired to direct, Matthew Broderick joined as the co-lead, and the movie was shaping up to be another hit in Carrey’s run of good fortune. But rather than be another light-hearted 90 minutes relying on Carrey’s charisma, The Cable Guy is something much different. It still features Carrey’s signature slapstick comedy and its fair share of iconic moments. Still, it’s a much darker story about an intrusive, lonely man raised by television, desperately seeking some form of human connection.
The Cable Guy was still a box office hit, but the critical response was much more mixed. Critics and audiences of the day had a preconceived idea of what a Jim Carrey movie should be, and this wasn’t it. The film was criticized for missing the mark, misusing Carrey’s talents, and being flat-out mean. While many noted that the film was going for a more thought-provoking approach than Carrey’s earlier works, the consensus was that Carrey was doing the same thing, but it felt out of place in this darker film.
The Cable Guy didn’t derail Carrey’s career. The rest of the decade was very kind to the actor, with more hits to follow, but The Cable Guy was viewed as the black sheep, often becoming the butt of jokes. Time has been much kinder to the film. In the twenty-five years since its release, it’s developed a growing cult following. Today the film is much more appreciated, with Carrey’s performance earning praise and the film’s themes on obsession and the influence of media becoming more relevant.
What Critics Said About The Cable Guy in 1996
“The Cable Guy is a hateful, bloodless monster,” Joe Morgenstern wrote in his scathing review for the Wall Street Journal. Morgenstern felt the film leaned way too hard into the lead “character’s hatefulness,” referencing the film’s basketball scene in which Carrey ruins the fun by being too aggressive and shattering the backboard. Morgenstern wondered out loud if perhaps Carrey’s large payday gave him too much freedom. “There’s no evidence at all of anyone having taken the star or his handlers aside to say, at some critical juncture, ‘Wait a minute, there’s no script here,’ or ‘Stop, what you’re doing isn’t funny.'”
Chris Kaltenbach of the Baltimore Sun echoed similar sentiments regarding Carrey. “He’s over the top, acting on such a huge adrenalin high that his face seems constantly ready to explode,” Kaltenbach wrote. “He mugs, he twitches, he screams. His eyes pop out, the veins in his neck bulge, his voice takes on the timbre of an air-raid siren.” Kaltenbach’s main issue was that Carrey gives his typical performance, but he’s the bad guy this time. And Carrey, as the bad guy, is off-putting and “simply uncomfortable.”
In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote that the film struggled by “taking itself too seriously.” According to Turan, the film tried too hard to sell us on this backstory about a character with a dark past instead of just allowing funny people to be funny. Turan points to Carrey having an “unnerving edge” but is still too funny to resist breaking into laughter.
Jane Horwitz had a pretty mixed take on The Cable Guy in her review for South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Horwitz wrote that “Carrey’s wild-eyed performance as a lonely and disturbed cable TV installer occasionally verges on brilliance” but lacks any “emotional truth.” For Horwitz, the movie gets stuck in the middle. It’s not funny, and it’s not scary, so what is it?
Roger Ebert awarded the film two out of four stars. Like Horwitz, Ebert was left confused by what the movie wanted us to feel. “We want to like Jim Carrey,” Ebert wrote. “A movie that makes us dislike him is a strategic mistake.” In Ebert’s eyes, The Cable Guy landed in this weird spot by mistake. It was supposed to be just another Jim Carrey comedy, but the darker elements of the story took over, and no one knew what to do at that point.
Of course, The Cable Guy wasn’t completely shunned. In his review for the New York Daily News, David Kehr praised Carrey for making a “gutsy move” by taking on a risk that would cause most commercial projects to shy away. Kehr praised Carrey for his ability to keep “something sadly human alive in his character.” He felt Broderick was the perfect counter, calling him “likable enough to preserve the audience’s sympathy but with a streak of selfishness that makes his fate seem slightly deserved.”
The Orlando Sentinel‘s Jay Boyar called the film an “oddly intelligent comedy” and questioned whether or not it would be too smart for his fans. Boyar gave Stiller credit for providing “Carrey a reliable structure to play around in.” From there, Carrey used his trademark “silliness and slapstick” but did so in a way not previously done. Instead of playing it for over-the-top laughs, it’s a hard, edgy satire.
What Critics Say About The Cable Guy Today
Everything that felt so strange and out of place when The Cable Guy was first released seems to make a lot more sense now. And people are starting to take notice. While revisiting the film for its twentieth anniversary for the AV Club, A.A. Dowd had a pretty simple explanation for why people didn’t like it: “Audiences were freaked out by it.” And they should have been freaked out. Carrey threw a fastball when everyone was expecting his whacky screwball. It was a risky move, but as Dowd points out, it “was also the first sign that there was more to its in-demand leading man than rubbery features and a brave, almost pathological willingness to look foolish.”
Dylan Gray praised The Cable Guy in a column for The Daily Illini, calling it an “incredibly cynical, poignant and succinct indictment of the modern media environment.” Gray writes that the film isn’t perfect and maybe doesn’t even succeed if viewed as a comedy. “But when read as a critique of the modern media world 20 years before its time, the beauty of the film is much more pronounced. Media saturation is dangerous, and living outside of the fabricated world is important to our psychological adjustment.”
More recently, Chris Cabin of Slant called the film Stiller’s best work as a director, noting his use of Dutch angles and his ability to handle a dream sequence. “The times had to catch up with The Cable Guy,” Cabins writes, “and now seen in hindsight, the film seems as bold an American comedic statement as was available in the mid-to-late ’90s.”
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how The Cable Guy caught so many people off guard back in 1996. It’s not uncommon for A-list stars to veer off course and try something different than what their reputation suggests. But they usually step over to the arthouse world and do something low-key that only reaches audiences that are guaranteed to like it. Carrey decided to get weird out in the open with other big stars while taking a record-setting paycheck. The audience didn’t have the chance to prepare properly. These days we’re better prepared. Not only are we more accustomed to the range Carrey has as a performer, but the film’s subject matter is more relevant than ever. The Cable Guy may focus on its titular character, but it’s really a snapshot of America’s obsession with tabloid news and the influence of what we choose to consume and how we consume it. In the social media, TMZ-crazed society we currently live in, The Cable Guy hits harder than ever.