'Cable Guy' Plugs Into Questions About Jim Carrey Phenomenon

It's hard to think of a less glamorous subject than the guy who hooks up the TV cable in your living room. So if moviegoers flock to "The Cable Guy" this summer, as they surely will, the reason will probably be Jim Carrey in the title role.

Which raises a question that's never been satisfactorily answered: Why is Carrey such a gigantic star, and what does his popularity tell us about ourselves?

It would be easy to reply that his crass, noisy humor is fashionable because we live in a crass, noisy time influenced more by diversions like MTV and karaoke than what used to be thought of as high-class entertainment. But if things were that simple, screens would be flooded with Carrey types scrambling to outdo one another in the yelling, mugging, and grimacing departments.

Carrey isn't the only member of his comic breed - clowns like Pauly Shore and Adam Baldwin come from the same mold - and even a genuine actor like Jeff Daniels may invade his turf when the box-office gold of a "Dumb and Dumber" rears its tempting head. Still, no other comedian has quite as much clout in the mid-'90s, raising the possibility that Carrey is not a passing fancy but a lasting phenomenon.

And if that's the case, some kind of real talent must be at work behind his twisting face and flailing limbs. It seems to me that Carrey is the closest thing we have to a rejuvenated Jerry Lewis, another comic roasted by reviewers in his heyday - the 1950s and '60s - for sappiness and stupidity, but loved by hordes of young spectators who found his awkwardness, clumsiness, and all-around ineptitude an enjoyable antidote for their own insecurities.

Lewis was later adopted by intellectual critics who found conceptual subtleties and cinematic niceties in pictures like "The Patsy" and "The Nutty Professor," which he both starred in and directed. While such an outcome may not be likely for Carrey, one can't help noticing his gift for physical gags, his abilities as a mimic, and the sheer energy that pops from every pore of his hyperactive body. A movie like "Batman Forever" could survive without his contributions, but pumped-up laugh machines like "The Mask" and "Dumb and Dumber" would hardly hold the screen if he weren't there to prop them up.

Ditto for "The Cable Guy," which is as flimsy as its one-joke premise. There's this weird cable technician, see, and if he gives you free access to the pay channels, he'll expect you to be his pal forever - a mighty stiff price, considering what an obnoxious lout he turns out to be.

The other main character is Steven Kovacs, who unwittingly lets the cable guy into his life when he's already wrestling with a big project at work and girlfriend trouble at home. The plot is mainly an excuse for embarrassing confrontations with the Carrey character, who's so hooked on TV that we never even learn his real name, just a lot of pseudonyms he's borrowed from old sitcoms.

"The Cable Guy" earns its PG-13 rating, and then some, with a lot of smarmy references (many of them in a game of "porno password" stretched over a long, offensive scene) and half-baked sexual innuendo, some of it leeringly homophobic. The language is also foul at times, and there's more cartoonish violence than you might expect. Lewis's movies weren't exactly delicate, but they rarely saw the need for so many crudities and vulgarities.

Matthew Broderick is a perfect straight man for Carrey, bringing his quiet intelligence to what's basically a one-dimensional character. The supporting cast includes old pros like George Segal and Diane Baker and young ones like Janeane Garofalo and Leslie Mann.

Ben Stiller directed Lou Holtz Jr.'s screenplay. The score ranges from TV theme music and contemporary rock to a crazed rendition of "Somebody to Love" by Carrey at his most explosively manic. He should stick to mugging and leave the music alone.

* 'The Cable Guy' has a PG-13 rating. It contains sexual dialogue, four-letter words, and violence.

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