Stranded in the Jungle--26

Jim Carrey

SPEW. I don't quite know whether to laugh or scream. Jim Carrey's mouth is open wide, wider than should be possible. His tongue flutters wildly, as if with a life of its own. His voice issues forth in a shriek. Carrey's head is thrown all the way back. His eyes are screwed upwards, almost closed. He's in ecstasy. It's a scene from Carrey's 1996 film The Cable Guy, directed by Ben Stiller. A karaoke party is going on. Carrey is singing the Jefferson Airplane song, "Somebody to Love." He is dressed in a garish Seventies outfit: black leather pants with a silver conch belt, and a brown suede fringed Davy Crockett jacket over a herringbone Qiana shirt. An ankh hangs on a chain around his neck. Psychedelic patterns swirl on the giant video monitor behind him. Spots of light from a disco ball sweep across the room. Carrey's rendition of "Somebody to Love" is hilariously crass. He attacks the song with his entire body. One moment, he is doing a rapid spin. The next, he is shaking his hips obscenely. And then, he is writhing and twitching all over the floor. The camera circles deliriously around him. At times, it moves in for a close-up of his spastic face. Carrey's singing voice is whiny and nasal, with a slight lisp. He draws out key words with an obnoxious vibrato twang. His phrasing is vehemently overstated. But what's most alarming is the way his take on the song keeps changing. Now "Somebody to Love" is a cry of desperate need. Now it sounds plaintive and self-pitying. Now it is filled with leering sexual insinuations. And now it has more than a hint of menace. Carrey wrings the song dry, draining it of all its possible meanings. I will never be able to hear "Somebody to Love" in the same way again. As the song goes, so goes everything else. Nothing is safe from Carrey's manic assaults. He mixes and matches pop culture references with reckless abandon. Sixties, Seventies, or Nineties, it's all the same. He moves from Star Trek to Jerry Springer in the blink of an eye. Or he stages an over-the-top reenactment of Midnight Express, just when you least expect it. Whatever roles he performs, Carrey is a man possessed. He channels alien voices, like a medium at a seance. Demonic energies rush through his body. But of course, these voices and energies do not come from the Beyond. They are merely a product of TV, radio, and the movies. Carrey suffers from cultural bulimia. He eagerly swallows up whatever the media have to offer, and then he vomits it all back out again. His appetite is promiscuous and indiscriminate, both on the way down, and the way back up. He spews out everything, without selection or reserve. Carrey is like a hyperactive child. He has high energy and a short attention span. And he has a compulsion to imitate everything he encounters. This makes him a perfect icon for the age of interactive multimedia entertainment. These days, we don't sit passively in front of the tube. Rather, we like to keep our fingers busy on the remote. When there's so much on, the only way is to channel surf with a vengeance. Carrey's body and face are flexible, like plastic. And his personality is equally unstable. He doesn't have a fixed identity to call his own. His demented cable TV installer in The Cable Guy doesn't even have a proper name. He just borrows the names of beloved sitcom characters, like Chip Douglas from My Three Sons. Carrey redefines selfhood as a ragtag collection of impressions, impersonations, and comedy routines. His secret is that he doesn't really exist, except to the extent that he is a performer. The only problem with this is that every performer needs an audience. If we ever stopped paying attention to Carrey, he would disappear. That's why his comedy has such an aggressive edge. It's desperately self-aggrandizing, even at its most abject. You can see this in the Ace Ventura films, and in most of Carrey's other work. But in The Cable Guy, Carrey finally discovers his ideal audience. He finds it in the person of the clueless yuppie Steven Kovacs (Matthew Broderick). Carrey's cable installer will stop at nothing to be Steven's friend. The film is almost a compendium of creepy ways to ingratiate oneself. Carrey alternately flatters and cajoles Steven, bullies him, showers him with gifts, gives him sympathy and advice, humiliates him in front of his family, procures women for him, cuts him off from his other friends, and blackmails him. The most disturbing thing about these antics is how well they work. Though Steven keeps on pushing Carrey away, he always leaves open a loophole to welcome him right back in. Steven can't stand Carrey, but he also can't do without him, any more than he can do without TV. And the same goes for me, as I watch Carrey with unending fascination.

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