There's nowt so queer as Carrey

Jim Carrey laughs in the face of cosy conventions. But just how far can he go? By Mark Simpson
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At the beginning of The Cable Guy, nice middle-class, reserved, repressed, bored Matthew Broderick's nice, middle-class, reserved life is invaded and nearly destroyed when he meets loud, blue-collar monstrous, polymorphously perverse Jim Carrey, who comes to hook him up to cable TV. Carrey, unnaturally desperate for a buddy, invites Matthew to "hang" with him some time. When Broderick gives the polite and dishonest "no" response: "Yes. We should do that... some time", Jim immediately jumps in "Great. I'll pick you up tomorrow about eight." When Broderick tries to get out of this nightmare date, Carrey feigns delicacy in order to manipulate Broderick's niceness: "Oh. Did I cross the line?"

"Crossing the line" is, of course, exactly what audiences go to see a Jim Carrey movie for. They want their nice, boring, reserved lives shaken up. Audiences find his transgression of the boundaries of taste, decency, decorum and, above all, his total lack of regard for physical and sexual space exhilarating and liberating, especially in the context of American political correctness and puritanism.

Each of his past five movies, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective, The Mask, Batman Forever, Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls grossed more than $100m in the US alone. While Carrey may have started off his film career courting children, with films such as Ace Ventura, his anarchic humour has found ever wider appeal. In fact, he "crosses the line" so well that the producers of The Cable Guy stumped up no less than $20m for his delinquency and transgressions.

But the very thing that draws in the crowds seems to alienate the critics. Dumb and Dumber was the best movie of 1995, but you wouldn't know it from the reviews. The Cable Guy, probably the best, funniest and smartest movie of 1996 - if not the decade - has also been universally panned in the US as "stupid". Jim Carrey, pop culture karaoke king, cartoon human, and most exciting new talent - nay, phenomenon - to emerge in movies for years, is still not taken seriously. Why aren't they getting the joke?

Well, actually they are. That's why the critics hate Jim Carrey movies - they realise that the joke is on them. The "low" Rabelaisian humour he represents, the flouting of boundaries, his intensity and enthusiasm, his pop-culture hysteria is all an attack on bourgeois, liberal convention, of which too many film critics, alas, still like to see themselves as the guardians. Jim Carrey, you see, is rock 'n' roll. In The Cable Guy, the first film to really exploit Carrey's talents to the full, this is all strikingly, shockingly obvious. This is a comedy, one that makes you laugh until you prolapse, but a comedy that exploits to the maximum what Freud called the "laughter of unease". The Cable Guy is a very, very dangerous movie in which the audience isconstantly left guessing as to just how far it will go. In fact, The Cable Guy is not a little "queer".

As a twisted buddy movie flick about Jim Carrey's obsessive and deranged attachment to Matthew Broderick The Cable Guy could hardly be anything else. The film knowingly plays with the audience's anxieties about male- on-male relationships (and what could make most audiences more uneasy?). There is the continuous and escalating threat that Carrey and the movie will somehow "overstep the line". When the lisping, nerdy, over-intense Carrey first arrives to install Broderick's cable TV - "let me juice you up" - he heavy pets the wall the cable must come through to find out "where you want it, baby!". Poor preppy little Matthew just out of the shower looks very uneasy and holds the top of his dressing gown closed.

And well he might. Broderick has just been dumped by his girlfriend and Carrey insinuates his way into his life by, Iago-like, orchestrating Broderick's reunion with his girlfriend. In any other buddy-love movie, this would help to defuse the danger of anything perverse, but here it just seems to intensify the threat. When his act of generosity fails to arouse the devotion that Carrey was hoping for, in a fit of pique, he revenges himself by taking apart Broderick's respectable yuppie life and heaping various humiliations on him.

In its myriad, sharp pop-culture references, The Cable Guy returns again and again to the buddy-movie theme, making a comedic text out of the usual subtext. When Carrey browbeats Broderick into going on a "date" with him to a theme restaurant called Medieval Times they end up fighting a duel that soon turns into a hilarious parody of that episode of Star Trek in which Spock suffers a nasty bout of Vulcan seven-year "blood fever": forced against his better judgement to mate, Spock's shrewd female companion in turn decides to eliminate the competition by forcing him to fight his buddy. "We must fight one another, Jim, or they will kill us," says Carrey, doing Spock more Spockily than Nimoy himself. Just in case we haven't grasped the point, immediately after this "bonding" scene we see Broderick standing behind Carrey with his arms around him humping him up and down - before Carrey thanks him for "straightening my back out".

Later Carrey procures a prostitute for Broderick. In the traditional buddy movie, this scene releases tension by expressing same-sex intimacy heterosexually. But not here. Carrey doesn't tell Broderick that the girl was a prostitute until the morning after, when Carrey and Broderick are having breakfast. As Broderick chokes on his scrambly eggs, Carrey reassures him that she was "OK". "I tried her out a couple of weeks ago. And I'm fit as a horse! Not a drip!" Making it clear to a horrified Broderick that he has effectively just been bedded by Carrey.

All in all, it is astonishing that The Cable Guy ever got made. With the budget of $45m, you'd be forgiven for thinking there might have been a few nervous interested parties who would have balked at scenes like, for instance, the one in the men's toilets where Carrey camply "rapes" a man trying to chat up Broderick's girlfriend by assaulting him with grooming products and forcing him to give head to the blow drier. But Carrey's huge fee probably also gives him huge influence, and Carrey realises that any curbing of his "unnatural acts" (as he called his pre-movie career stand-up act) would compromise his trademark craziness, disappoint his audience and translate into smaller fees.

And, in the tumultuous wake of The Cable Guy, it's possible to see that Carrey's irreverence for all conventions, his "unmanliness" combined with a real menace (see also his The Riddler in Batman Forever), his "grossness" and "naughtiness" are at the heart of all great comedy and rock 'n' roll. Carrey is the glorious realisation of the squandered early promise of Steve Martin, displayed in such inspired roles as the scary, pervy, motorbike riding S&M dentist in Little Shop of Horrors - getting quite literally in your face and subjecting you to all kinds of indignities that you really find quite fun and quite liberating, actually.

Unless you're a film critic.

Mark Simpson is the author of 'It's a Queer World' (Vintage)

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