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The Cable Guy

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WHAT DID ROGER Ebert really mean last week when he described the Jim Carrey character in The Cable Guy as "a seriously disturbed human being"? And did this have anything to do with the fact that Ebert, clarifying even less than usual, proceeded to turn his thumb straight down? In other reviews of The Cable Guy, the title character has been called a "tormentor," a "social leech," a "deranged sociopathic imp," and just plain "frightening." So what exactly does this guy do--base his murders on the Seven Deadly Sins? No, he just wants to be close friends with a man (Matthew Broderick); and when said man becomes unresponsive to his overtures, the cable guy decides, like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, that he will not be ignored. Frightening. Reportedly, the National Cable Television Association is concerned enough to be equipping installers with buttons that read, "I'm the real cable guy...ask me why." But what's scarier is how Janet Maslin, without once mentioning the film's subtext, wrote that "Carrey... tries the creepy gambit of talking with a lisp," while Broderick is "a solidly good straight man." Whoa.

The question of whether Carrey's character is queer isn't answered definitively in The Cable Guy--and, let's face it, it pretty much couldn't be in a movie aimed at kids on summer vacation and obliged to gross at least $100 million. What's interesting, though, is how much sneaky fun the film has with this notion without going all the way. And, at least until the last half-hour, it never suggests that this guy is merely "sociopathic"--except in the straight man's (or viewer's?) mind. In other words, the movie is less about the cable guy's wacky identity than his customer's deep-seated phobia. (Hence, perhaps, the reviewers who've seemed confused or insulted by the film's supposed lack of humor.) What's chiefly funny here is the Broderick character's cluelessness, which peaks when he offers the cable guy some self-help tapes to "cure" his lisp.

If you're still not sold on the cable guy's preference (VH1 over MTV?), look again at the print ad's image of Carrey gripping a slightly saggy but impressively sized piece of coax cable, under the tag line, "He'll Juice You Up." (What do moms think their kids are going to see here?) Otherwise, the film itself has plenty of evidence. Going by the name of "Chip Douglas" (the cutest of My Three Sons), the cable guy visits the home of straight-laced Steven (Broderick) to do a routine installation. Much to Chip's surprise, Steven offers him 50 bucks to perform a special favor--that is, to plug in the premium channels at no extra charge. Chip acts offended at being mistaken for a cable-whore, but deep down he's juiced. "Free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac," Chip says. He proceeds to invite Steven out to look at his satellite dish, but, losing his nerve, apologizes for "crossing the line." Eventually, though, the lines begin to blur: After surreptitiously snipping Steven's cable, Chip offers to provide a customer service housecall in exchange for a night on the town.

As in Hitchcock's equally "mysterious" Strangers on a Train, the two strangers here are complete opposites, yet unlikely doubles (with matching haircuts, Carrey and Broderick look remarkably alike). The cable guy craves (hu)man contact, per his highly animated karaoke performance of "Somebody to Love." Conversely, poor Steven has some boundary issues. In a film teeming with witty allusions to technology, TV, and other films, a clip from Sleepless in Seattle stands out: That movie was about the hope of finding a stranger; this one is about the fear of it. As Chip's actions begin to escalate (multiple answering machine messages, disruption of work and home), Steven manages to stay calm for longer than you'd expect of a "straight man"--although Chip instantly raises the blood pressure of Steven's hostile friend Rick (Jack Black), who seems more than a little jealous that another guy is getting his best buddy's attention. "Maybe I'll go to the concert with my own cable guy," he says after Steven cancels their plans.

Like I said, The Cable Guy doesn't believe it can out Chip and still make a fortune, and so when the movie is finally forced to explain his mystery, the cop-out factor is profound. Even aside from the sexual stuff, the film's trio of intense Jim Carrey showstoppers--the cable guy expressing himself on the basketball court, at a karaoke party, in the men's room--promised a more "frightening" revelation about the man than the one given. In the end, The Cable Guy is merely the latest of dark-stranger movies with rich subtexts--among them Cape Fear (class conflict), Single White Female (female competitiveness), and the forthcoming The Fan (racism, from the looks of it). Like these, The Cable Guy is certainly a cautionary tale, but not about the dangers of TV.

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