68 minutes. That’s how long I waited to laugh while watching Yes Man, the worst movie Jim Carrey has ever appeared in. He plays Carl, a solitary sad sack divorcee stuck in a depressing job and deeply devoted to saying no to any possibility of having fun. (Absolutely nothing must interfere with his home DVD screenings. For him, every night is a Blockbuster night.)
His life gradually changes, though, when Nick (John Michael Higgins), an old friend, runs into him outside one day during his lunch break. Concerned that Carl hasn’t made anything of his professional life (he’s still at the same desk job routinely declining loans from desperate small business entrepreneurs), Nick raves about this self-help seminar he’s been attending. He urges his pal to check it out.
But like everybody else in his life who foolishly try to convince him to socialize, Carl is cool to the offer. (He’s always got a ready excuse, sometimes even before someone suggests a get-together.) However, after purposefully missing his lawyer friend’s engagement party and having a bizarre nightmare that freaks him out, he ultimately changes his mind and runs into Nick again.
The seminar is led by Terence Stamp, a forceful Brit obsessed with the word “yes”. Sounding more like a cult leader than a motivational speaker, his solution for getting ahead in life is jumping at any and all opportunites that come one’s way, careful discrimination be damned. Throughout his ridiculous presentation, the enraptured audience hangs on his every word, constantly shouting out “yes”, among other things, like transfixed sheep.
When Stamp asks about new members to the flock, Nick helpfully points out Carl who understandably refuses to join him on stage. So, the feisty scam artist takes off his shoes, hauls his ass to Carl in bare feet in record time and confronts him directly. Refusing to give the man a choice in the matter, Stamp basically orders him to stop saying no to anything and everything or there’ll be consequences. (He even wacks him in the head with his microphone at one point when he doesn’t play ball. Maybe he should’ve done that to the screenwriters.)
Whenever Carl is hesistant with Stamp, the crowd incessantly chants “No man! No man! No man!”, a perfect nickname. He literally has to resign himself to take on this absurd philosophy or risk breaking “the covenant” he’s unwittingly made. Good lord.
Like a bad imitation of George Costanza, Carl basically does the opposite of what he would normally do in social situations after leaving the seminar. But he needs to be truly convinced at first. So when a homeless guy asks for a ride, Nick reminds him of what he agreed to. Begrudgingly, he gives in. Once in the car, though, the favours don’t stop. Homeless guy needs to make a call. Carl obliges. Homeless guy needs some money before he leaves. After some prodding, Carl gives him every bill he has left in his wallet.
Unfortunately, the cell phone’s battery dies and the car runs out of gas so he’s stranded while his former passenger is doing…something in those bushes. (Maybe it’s best we never know.) As you can imagine, Carl’s already regretting this sudden lifestyle change, loudly expressing his displeasure. But after walking to a nearby gas station, he meets Zooey Deschanel, an aspiring pop singer/keytarist who also teaches photography to joggers at 6 a.m.. (Don’t ask.)
After she gives him a lift back to his car on her scooter, it’s pretty obvious they’ll be seeing each other again. And sure enough, a few scenes later, Carl is at a local dive checking out her jokey all-female retro outfit, Munchausen By Proxy. (Thankfully, Deschanel can sing even though her band’s keyboard-heavy material is completely devoid of wit.) Trying very hard to channel Hendrix at one point, she performs The Star Spangled Banner on keytar. It’s not as funny as it sounds.
Which brings me back to the film’s opening laugh. Longtime character actor Luis Guzman is on a ledge ready to jump off. (I envied him.) Carl takes it upon himself to lure him back inside by picking up an acoustic guitar and playing Third Eye Blind’s Jumper. (Fortunately, he had been taking lessons.) Long story short, Carl saves the day and then unexpectedly references a famous Ringo Starr line which ends the film’s astonishing humourless streak. It literally comes out of nowhere.
The film’s other funny moment happens about 20 minutes later. You could say that it “cracked” me up.
In between those brief moments of levity are a lot of painfully forced scenes. Carrey and Deschanel have zilcho chemistry which immediately kills their burgeoning romance. Their banter never feels natural (Deschanel’s constant fake laughing is clearly a put-on to appease the sometimes desperately manic Carrey) which isn’t entirely their fault. They’re literally given nothing funny or charming to say. When an unexpected plot twist temporarily splits them up, we could care less whether they get back together or not. It also doesn’t help that there’s a huge age gap, almost 20 years between the two performers, which is never addressed. Put simply, their relationship is just not believable.
Also painful to watch is the growing but awkward friendship between Carl and Norm (Rhys Darby who played the hapless manager on Flight Of The Conchords), his boss at work. Like the film itself, Norm is an overwrought people pleaser whose desperation and neediness for Carl’s affection and respect is more embarrassing than anything else. He’s also way too obsessed with Harry Potter and 300.
But Yes Man’s biggest flaw is its laziness. The idea of a smooth-talking huckster selling fools on the idea of saying “yes” to everything has great comic potential. (Didn’t The Simpsons more successfully pursue a similiar theme years ago with an episode about a guru who told the residents of Springfield to do whatever they wanted?) The problem is the film buys into it wholeheartedly without a lick of cynicism or doubt. There is no satirical agenda to speak of here. No real downside to being a “yes” addict (except the times when your dicky friends take advantage of your passivity or you get into a bar fight or you run afoul of the law).
Even the questionable decisions Carl makes leads to something better later on, like approving practically every loan he’s asked for and getting a big, long coveted promotion out of it. In the end, you get the impression that he’s not only an addicitive slave (first by saying no to everything then saying yes) but possibly manic depressive. Initially, his dreary, empty life moves very slowly then it accelerates to the point where, with one exception, he’s rarely fatigued. The movie never really addresses this which might’ve reaped some comic rewards.
It isn’t until the film’s third act when Stamp belatedly and infuriatingly informs Carl that he didn’t actually have to say “yes” all the time after all. Gee, thanks, for the head’s up, General Zod. When exactly was he supposed to be choosy?
Prior to 2012 I had seen exactly 17 Jim Carrey movies, some close to being good, some average, some overrated, some just plain awful, but all of them too lousy to recommend. None of them are as appallingly asinine and phony as Yes Man, the 18th consecutive stinker I’ve suffered through. May this talented comedian one day make a movie I actually enjoy.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, February 10, 2012