Friday, April 10, 2009
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Terence Stamp, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Darby, Molly Sims
Running Time: 104 min.
★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Yes Man takes a potentially entertaining premise and dumbs it down, opting to tell the same bad joke over and over again hoping it'll eventually get laughs. Because there's actually some real truth in the concept the attempts at juvenile slapstick humor fall flat and Jim Carrey's zany performance feels like it's out of another film. If he's trying to cleanse himself of The Number 23 by retreating back into his comic safe zone he's trying too hard. Worse yet, the movie's trying too hard along with him.
The biggest shame is that this could have really been something if the filmmakers had trusted the premise and kept everything reasonably grounded. The best moments are subdued ones where Carrey isn't in Ace Ventura mode. Unfortunately those are few and far between and then the whole thing really falls apart at the end when the screenplay buckles, revealing itself to be lacking in either originality or ambition. But there is one truly great aspect that almost makes all of this bearable. And you know what (or rather who) it is. Do I even need say it? She's the only reason you should see this.
You're already familiar with the plot. Just take Liar, Liar and replace "telling the truth" with saying "yes." Carrey is bank employee Carl Allen, a depressed loner still recovering from his divorce from ex-wife Stephanie (Molly Sims) and who's most eventful activity of the week is renting a movie. All that changes when an old friend (John Michael Higgins) convinces him to attend a self-help seminar hosted by motivational guru Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp, collecting a paycheck) dedicated to the power of saying "yes."
Carl promises to stop being a "no" man and say "yes" to every opportunity that comes his way, including giving a ride and all of his money to a homeless person. Stranded without gas and a dead cell battery he encounters the free-spirited, scooter-driving Allison (Zooey Deschanel). Attracted to her quirkiness, he begins to embrace life and realize that saying "yes" opens up a whole new world to him as he learns Korean and the guitar, takes flying lessons, and even gets a Persian wife from the internet.
There is one major distinction between this and Liar, Liar. Here the protagonist CHOOSES to take the challenge on by choice rather than having some silly, supernatural spell put over him where he loses control. That should have kept the film more realistically grounded and opened the floodgates for a more meaningful story. It was a wise decision, but the screenplay and Carrey are unable to capitalize on it, using the opportunity to instead revel in low-brow humor. But the biggest problem is that Carrey has difficulty playing a normal, functioning human being we can relate to.
He plays Carl not just as someone whose biggest problem is saying "no," but as an escapee from a mental institution with manic tendencies. Just watch him in a scene at a bar where he's supposed to be drunk. He looks like Jim Carrey imitating a drunk person rather than someone who actually is. Too often he overplays everything when a more grounded performance would have served the film much better. The only time Carrey was ever fully restrained was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and it resulted in his greatest performance. That's not a coincidence. In his defense, the screenplay doesn't help. A sight gag involving the sexual advances of an old lady is disgusting and unfunny, using what should be a "can't miss" premise in the most brain dead way possible. Just the fact that the film thinks that being a male nurse is hysterical should give an idea of the level of humor we're dealing with here.
The movie works in the smaller, less showy moments, usually anything involving Carl's bank manager Norman (a very funny Rhys Darby) whose impressed with his new found motivation at work and also has a somewhat unhealthy obsession with the Harry Potter films. But it works best when focusing on his developing relationship with Allison. For this, Zooey once again reprises her role as pretty much the most awesome girlfriend on the planet, and as you could have probably guessed, she ups the ante on quirk once again. Just how quirky is Allison? She teaches a Yoga photography class, sings in maybe the most brilliantly named band in movie history and her scooter helmet has... GOOGLY EYES!
I hate continuously using the word "quirky" in every review to describe Zooey but it's true. And it's a compliment. It's funny how if any other actress had continued to play variations on the same role over and over again I'd rip them for it, but when she does it I cheer. Allison's offbeat characteristics would be irritating in the hands of another actress but in hers they're adorable. By now in her career we should feel as if we've been beaten to death by a quirky stick but I don't care. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. She can continue to beat me with with it as much as she wants.
A big fuss was made over the nearly twenty-year age gap between Carrey and Zooey and while Carrey's age is an issue, it doesn't cause the kind of distraction you'd expect. They do have chemistry, though it's not exactly the romantic kind. Where Carrey's age becomes a hinderance is in the situation. This feels like the kind of crisis a twenty-something would be having, not a middle-aged man. You sense the script was intended to revolve around someone much younger, then revised when Carrey came on board. That's especially apparent when you see Carl hanging out with his best friend (played by Bradley Cooper) who appears to be in an entirely different stage of his life. Carrey's a forty-something who's playing someone who's supposed to be a thirty-something in a story that feels like it should be revolving around a twenty-something. It's enough to confuse Benjamin Button.
As sexist as it may make me sound there is a small part of me (growing exponentially with each passing year) that wants to celebrate the fact that no matter how old a guy gets Hollywood will always have his back and cast a young, hot chick opposite him. Wrong to say, but honest. Plus, you figure it takes guys longer to get their acts together anyway before they're ready to settle down so it's reassuring to know that movies are preaching that we have as much time as we want! Whew, what a relief. You do fall for a person not an age, but we all know that's not why Hollywood casts older men opposite women young enough to be their daughters.
Thankfully though, Carrey and Zooey are likable and capable enough that they sell it and the pairing isn't creepy at all. The scenes they share together are the film's best and it's during them when the story really feels like it's clicking. So of course the idiot screenwriters had to to manufacture the requisite "fake crisis" to split them apart that's become a hallmark of all third acts in romantic comedies. And this one ranks among the most forced and unnatural I've seen. It's just lazy writing. Who made the rule that in all rom-coms the two leads have to get into a contrived, unrealistic fight before realizing that they love each other? This deserved better.
The film is based on British author Danny Wallace's supposedly much smarter 2005 memoir in which he really did challenge himself for 6 months to say "yes" to everything. I'd believe it's smarter. There's a great story in here struggling to get out. Not just a good one, but a great one. I wanted to love this film so badly because the premise is bursting with creative potential. I'm also tempted to recommend it just for Zooey but that would be doing a disservice. There are just too many problems with it. The saddest part is I'd watch this again before some of the nominated films of the past year. Yes Man may be a misfire, but at least it's a somewhat likable one.