Saturday, December 20, 2008

Yes is the new whatever: Jim Carrey in Yes Man

Yes Man defies analysis. It is not particularly bad, nor any good either. It exists as perfect HBO fodder, a consumer product designed to occupy in a cloying and formulaic manner one hour and 44 minutes of the viewer’s short life. It tells the story of Carl Allen (Carrey), a man who processes loan applications for a living. Divorced, he lives alone, and he faces the numbing effects of habit and routine. By saying things like “You’re dead, Karl. You say no to life,” an old friend persuades Carl to go to a cult-like self-help seminar where guru Terrence Bundley (Terrence Stamp) gets him to agree to a covenant where he will say yes to anything anyone asks him. Carl says yes, whereupon his life becomes an adventure of spontaneous opportunities.

So far, okay. After giving a beggar a ride and all of his money, Carl runs out of gas, and has to walk a long way to a gas station, but then kooky Allison (Zooey Deschanel) rides up on a scooter, and she volunteers to give him a ride back to his car. On the way, he wears her helmet embellished with large cartoon eyes. She takes their photograph together, and then she gives him a kiss for no obvious reason before scooting away. The film posits that if he hadn’t said yes to the bum, he would not have found the beginnings of romance. Soon Carl finds himself agreeing to lessons in flying, guitar, and the Korean language, and later we get the pleasure of seeing how all of those skills will pay off.

I kept staring at Carrey’s face. He’s made his career out of making funny faces, and I especially liked his work in The Truman Show, but something went strange with his 2007 vehicle The Number 23, an unfunny mystery/thriller about a man who becomes obsessed with a number. The Number 23 earned an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes. All of a sudden, Carrey went from a possible leading man to a has-been who looked deranged. I haven’t seen the film, but everything about Yes Man seems in reaction to The Number 23. By making a bland, life-affirming romantic comedy, Carrey seeks to erase the memory of that career misstep, but there’s still something haunted about him, he’s become a joke-meister no longer quite content with his gags, and no longer secure with his paycheck. Therefore, the only way to see any value in Yes Man is within the framework of Carrey’s media redemption. He realizes that he was wrong, so now we get the opposite--bogus uplift—Carrey saving a man from jumping off a ledge by singing a folk song to him with guitar accompaniment—“Step back from your ledge,” etc. All of his attempts to “squeeze every drop of juice” out of the EXPERIENCE of LIFE struck me as compounding a more sophisticated form of despair on top of the misery of his earlier negative self. This film suggests that if you become a pawn of others, then life will pull you from your WASPish shell of safe denial and set you free!

Meanwhile, Deschanel continues to get sadly typecast as quirky. She played the lead in M. Night Shyamalan’s quirky apocalyptic The Happening. Here, she fronts a quirky band called “Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome” when she’s not quirkily leading jogging and photography groups around the Griffith Park Observatory (of Rebel Without a Cause) in the morning. To fit the romantic comedy structure, Carl and Allison have to rethink things later, so she gets to act a little, but mostly her characterization remains as bland and blank a version of therapeutic LA goofiness as the rest of the film.

Late in the movie, there are more hints of desperation in the way things keep happening (an FBI bust, a car crash) to gloss the fact that due to its openness to all possibilities, all tension has vanished from the screenplay. In a last attempt to generate excitement, the screenwriters lift a page from Jason Statham’s Crank of all things by having Carrey ride a motorcycle wildly across LA while wearing a hospital gown. Just as Steve Carell does towards the end of Get Smart, Carrey shows his rear (funny!), and that’s when I realized what the ironic poster of Yes Man reminds me of—the cheesy photo of Carell in the poster of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Perhaps, Jim Carrey wants the more wholesome and less manic stardom of Steve Carell. After the disastrous reception of The Number 23, any kind of stardom will do.

9 comments:

Alexander Coleman said...

An excellent review, Film Dr. Very insightful and interesting from beginning to end. Haha, "Yes is the New Whatever," very well put.

Alexander Coleman said...

I must admit I forgot all about The Number 23. I suppose I am not alone in that regard.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Mr. Coleman. I just realized that Carrey's Liar, Liar (1997) is very similar to Yes Man in the way Carrey used both vehicles to recover from less successful forays into grimmer, more dramatic films. In 1997, Carrey earned $20 million a movie. With Yes Man, Carrey did without an upfront payment altogether. Instead he will earn a percentage of the profits.

Alexander Coleman said...

Wow. No wonder he is not a big fan of the George W. Bush years.

CSouthwell said...

I have to say, i am a massive fan of the book, which is an awful lot funnier and more subtle.

When carey was cast, i was a little distraught. I think it stands up as a unny film in its own right, but wont be a classic in years to come.

The book however is great. Though did you notice Danny Wallace the author's appearence in the film as an extra in the baby shower scene? He looked rather uncomfortable.

I feel sorry for his real story, having been changed in this way (despite being a co-producer on it)

The films still made me laugh, but in a much more crass, and less subtle way than the book, which had genuine warmth.

FilmDr said...

C Southwell,

Thanks for letting me know about the book version. I haven't read it. I can see how saying yes to everything would greatly open up one's life to new experiences, but I also wonder about how it would allow others to exploit you, and ultimately commit you to a bunch of things that would become oppressive and irritating. I wonder if Wallace has an answer to that. The movie version would seem to smooth out many of the book's subtleties, in part to fit the romantic comedy structure.

CSouthwell said...

Interestingly, though i would say that the story itself was actually funnier and more romantic.

He actually failed the challenge of 6 months set by his close friend. By saying no to a proposition from another woman.

Its hard to say quite how different the book is from the film. As there are so many little laughs that are genuine character building, as apposed to the 'cinema friendly' scenes added.

There were classic gems in the book, for example. like being invited to dinner with his ex and new bf. and accepting, and sitting there just being awkward.

obviously there is a lot that couldnt be included, i appriciate that, but i think that so much was lost by moving it into the american context.

He did accept [i suspect only some of] the hundreds of junk emails. And the charity people collecting on streets. And joining random groups of people handing out flyers for days. And i suspect a lot of it was irritating, but when poised with the question of will things be better because of the small irritants, and the goodwill it was spreading.

Obviously the idea itself is beyond silly, and needs the justification of wanting to say yes to things.

I would reccomend you the read though. Genuinely.

:) It personally, was a book that got me interested in reading again.


Sorry about the rant. btw your reviews are extremely well written.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the further clarification and recommendation, C Southwell.

CSouthwell said...

No worries, and i have linked you in my bloglist.

I thoroughly enjoy good writing to read. Especially about films.

Cheers.