JIM CARREY MAY FINALLY HAVE achieved something that has thus far eluded him in his meteoric screen career: he's found a movie to star in that probably won't be a smash hit. Carrey has never been shy about showing his edge; a good part of his shape-shifting comic brilliance is its in-your-face aggression, a maniacal life-of-the-party urge to entertain that would be ghastly to behold if the butt of the joke weren't Carrey himself -- and if he weren't so damn funny. As The Cable Guy, he pushes this persona one step further, into flat-out psychosis. It will be fascinating to see how many of his fans will be willing to go along for the ride, for in this uneasy and uneasy-making hybrid of comedy and psychological horror, Carrey is all aggression.
The joke of the movie is that the guy who wires your cable box has his own wires dangerously crossed. A friendless loner raised in front of a TV set, he comes to install cable in the new apartment of Steven (Matthew Broderick), who's just been dumped by his girlfriend. What Steven wants is free cable. What the cable guy wants is to be Steven's friend -- and nothing is going to stop him. What ensues is a psychotic and nightmarish invasion of the hapless Steven's life. The more he tries to reject the cable guy's courtship, the nastier the retaliation. Like a demonic and omnipotent Dennis the Menace, the intruder rewires Steven's life, causing him to land in jail, lose his job and almost lose his mind.
It sounds like an old Roman Polanski movie, or ""Single White Male'' shot through with unresolved homoerotic undertones. But no, it's a Jim Carrey comedy, one with the unfortunate disability of being no fun whatsoever. Which is not to say that there isn't considerable skill on display here and a certain intriguing if misguided ambition. Ben Stiller, the director, is no hack. But he's taken on a project that may have been doomed before it started. Once this screenplay (credited to Lou Holtz Jr. but heavily rewritten) became a Carrey vehicle, the results almost had to be schizoid -- impossibly suspended between slapstick, satire and pathology.
The media-savvy Stiller, who used to do knowing sendups of movies on ""The Ben Stiller Show,'' peppers ""The Cable Guy'' with a running joke about a lurid TV trial involving a murderous twin. It's a throwaway gag, but it's the funniest thing here. The movie is jammed with jokes and references to other movies -- they're the cable guy's only references, since he doesn't have a life -- and we're meant in the end to think that Stiller's movie has something important to tell us about how the culture and its consumers have become warped from media overload. He can't make the point stick, however, because his own movie is infected with the same virus -- it's all encased in ironic quotes. It can't risk real pathos, or real horror, and still be a Jim Carrey movie, so the most it achieves is a kind of unsettling creepiness. Strange movie: Carrey is working his gifted butt off, and we're not allowed to laugh.