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and Kirk Wise
It is a fallacy of our age that television—the medium, the concept, the appliance itself—is inherently evil. From Being There to Network to Fox’s late, lamented series Profit, the somehow native malice of the medium is a handy scapegoat for all kinds of social ills whose real sources are too diffuse, knotty, or unpleasant to dwell upon.
Although this truism was once the property of smarties and snobs, for whom TV and its attendant culture have class implications that give them the shivers, it has since become so accepted it serves as the premise of that most mainstream of at-your-local-mall offerings—the new Jim Carrey movie.
The Cable Guy brought a lot of baggage on its journey to the screen. Apparently, Ben Stiller (a sharp actor and comedy writer whose first feature was Reality Bites) originally signed up to direct a script very different from the final product, the change being a result of Carrey’s megawatt name and $20-million price tag. Tailored to Carrey’s patented brand of madness, the new Cable Guy emerges an unappetizing mixture of outrageous comedy and creepy psychological suspense. Stiller never finds a tone fitting for either style, and the result is a jarring, cringe-inducing, rather hateful mess.
Carrey plays a rogue cable installer who arrives at the apartment of sad sack Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick) hours late but brooking no disapproval of his timing. Desperate to make a human connection at any cost, the cable guy manipulates Steven’s fragile emotions (he’s just been thrown out of his girlfriend’s apartment), alternately playing on his sympathies, acting the generous pal, and menacing him, until Steven agrees they should hang out. The cable guy, who goes by a number of sitcom-derived aliases, including Ernie “Chip” Douglas, proves an exhausting, obsessive, and demanding friend, meddling everywhere in Steven’s business from his apartment to his love life. When Steven amasses enough spine to tell Chip to back off, he finds he’s made a very angry, completely insane enemy. With access to technology.
The explanation for Chip’s instability and neediness is that he spent too much time as a child parked in front of the TV set while his trampy mother went out manhunting. There is nothing right with this bit of schlock psychology. Was the kid too stupid to turn the set off and do something else? Were the lessons of the shows he supposedly absorbed—the usual baby-boomer schedule, now appearing on Nick at Nite—actually immoral? And isn’t it a bit rich that two guys—Stiller and Carrey—who owe their considerable success to television can turn around and lambaste it for ruining everyone’s lives? TV did nothing but good for theirs.
But philosophies aside, the mechanics of the thing are out of whack: One of television’s most important functions is to teach the viewer social skills. Not just social skills, but mainstream tastes, opinions, and references that could be of use to a social schemer like the cable guy, a cipher with nothing but a TV education to see him through. Yet he’s awkward, inappropriate, and embarrassing in public, as if he had been raised without TV or anything from the outside world against which to check his level of normality.
The Cable Guy is equally sloppy in its appearance. Jolting continuity mistakes distract from the action, as in the big climax set atop a cable station during a thunderstorm; when the rain stops, everyone’s bone dry, their hair blowing in the breeze. A ghastly fight sequence, in which Chip and Steven battle medieval-style, has Carrey spouting very funny free-associative Star Trek jokes while going at his friend with, among other weapons, a mace, a sword, and a battle-ax. This battle takes place on the jousting grounds of Medieval Times, a Southern California fantasy-theme restaurant that is almost beyond parody. Inspired by the absurdity of the place, Stiller & Co. rented it out to send it up, rather than re-creating the whole ghastly experience on their own dime. The resulting sequence is compromised and soggy, mild fun where it could have been scathing genius.
If Stiller had made the decision to take the film as far as Carrey takes his character, it might have slipped into the realm of the surreal, where the laughs get bigger as the violence gets more fantastic and therefore unimaginable. But watching a criminal type whose off-screen analogue is all too real crack jokes while trying to kill a man is merely grotesque.
There’s the germ of a good idea in the story of a hapless nice guy caught up in a series of Day-Glo disasters—After Hours without the girls—and another not-so-fresh one about a stalker and his victim (Single White Female meets Unlawful Entry, without the girls). But after only four big movies, Carrey’s shtick has ossified beyond compromise with any director’s idea of tone, pace, or attitude, so everything about The Cable Guy is at odds with its star’s performance.
The most discomfiting aspects of the movie are less obvious. There’s a thread of homophobic/homoerotic weirdness running through the film, starting with the nature of this stalker-victim relationship and not stopping until Chip forces a man to suck the tube of a bathroom air-drier. But the real ugly truth, for which TV-equals-doom serves as a macguffin on this project, is class conflict. The cable guy is, after all, a modern kind of servant, and he trespasses not only emotional and psychological boundaries, but distinct class barriers by forcing intimacy on his betters. Steven’s discomfort is the discomfort of Industry honchos who feel the rabble getting too close. In the case of The Cable Guy, the rabble would be well-advised to leave
Disney, on the other hand, is making news and waves for being more inclusive and democratic than many people feel a corporation ought to be. The company’s new policy to extend employee benefits to domestic partners, including gay couples, has some folks up in arms and an entire Baptist Convention calling for a boycott. (Lotsa luck: Now they’ll have to buy everything from Time-Warner and McDonald’s.) But the decision is not all that surprising. Over the past 10 years Disney has been evolving into the Big Tent of big business, as evidenced especially in its animated movies. Starting with The Little Mermaid, the animation arm began to acknowledge the outsider, the misfit—loosely speaking, minorities—as fitting subjects of Disney dreams. Never has this call for tolerance been so blatant than in the choice of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and never has an animated movie risen so nobly to its chosen occasion.
This luminous, intelligent film is not the simple love story Disney specializes in, and it is only tangentially about a character’s quest for self-esteem (the opiate of the masses, ’90s style). The writers do much less tidying of Hugo’s story than Charles Perrault did of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales from which Disney culled so many sweet, bland animated hits. Hunchback deals with complicated notions, like religious hypocrisy, lust unto madness, and social intolerance. It’s not for the tinies, who will—and did, in one screening—become restless and confused.
“Who is the monster and who is the man?” sings Clopin (Paul Kandel), our MC and embodiment of the dark, wild Parisian underworld. Acting out the story with scary little puppets, his opening number, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” sets the stage: color-saturated 15th-century Paris centered on the cathedral, which houses both the gentle, misshapen bell-ringer, Quasimodo (Tom Hulce), and his guardian, the pious Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay). The ensuing 90 minutes answer that question, but not without some bumps along the way.
Frollo is a complex villain, one who believes he is doing good while indulging in heinous perfidy. Hypocrisy is a trickier idea than outright evil, and kids may have some questions about Frollo’s intentions compared with his actions. Giving us a glimpse of her upcoming role in Striptease, Demi Moore provides the bold, husky voice of beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda, who points out tartly that she hasn’t many options besides dancing in the street for coins, which she does to the whoops and hollers
of the crowd. Even stalwart soldier Phoebus’ (Kevin Kline) alle-
gianceis unclear—he is under
Frollo’s orders, but recognizes his
While clearly the hero, Quasimodo is not destined to get the girl, nor to be cured of his physical condition. Instead, he must stand up for himself, sacrifice his ambitions with Esmeralda so that she might be happy with Phoebus, and teach people not to mistreat him, an outcast even among the outcasts; they may be scornful of the aristocracy, but the beggars and fools who inhabit the mad, skeleton-populated Court of Miracles are uneducated peasants not above humiliating a weaker element.
Providing the usual Greek chorus and comic relief are a trio of delightful gargoyles (Jason Alexander, Charles Kimbrough, and the late Mary Wickes), an elaboration of Hugo’s own suggestion that Quasimodo believed the stone statues to be alive. While Clopin’s puppets perform snippets of the story, Quasimodo whittles a miniature Paris and its populace; the carved and painted versions of the people Quasimodo sees intensify and mirror the action of the 11 “real” characters, so that the story shimmers among layers of reality—with crude parody in the puppet tent, harshness on the street below, and hope and resignation amid the ropes and scaffolds of the bell tower.
This time the writers, animators, and directors have pulled out all
the stops. The eight Alan Menken/Stephen Schwartz songs try to outdo each other in humor, attitude, and panache, notably Clopin’s “Topsy Turvy,” Frollo’s frightening song of desire and violence, “Hellfire,” and the gargoyles’ musical pep talk, “A Guy Like You.” They rhyme “Adonis” with “croissant is,” paraphrase Shakespeare, and make one fine Wizard of Oz joke. And in what other children’s movie can you hear words like “calumny,” “parapet,” and “truss”?
Hunchback may be too advanced
—and in parts too scary— for little ones, but Disney should be lauded for not serving dumbed-down slop to innocent children of all ages. And at the very least, kids will come out of this movie knowing how to pronounce “Noh-truh Dahm.”CP