Yes Man

January 26, 2009

A quick note:  I bashed this out pretty fast one evening, still fresh from the simmering rage of sitting through the film.  I sat down this evening intending to re-write it, or at least reformat it to a large degree, but then realized that, quite frankly, this film doesn’t deserve anymore of my time.  I’m not making excuses for the writing (though I probably should), but I will warn that, while an effort was made to scale back and not give out spoilers, I probably talk too much about the plot.  If you’ve seen the film, my condolences, and please read on.  If you haven’t, don’t see it in the first place.

As soon as the trailer appeared, the spectre of Liar Liar loomed large over the latest Jim Carrey vehicle.  After his latest stab at a ‘serious’ project (the unbelievably awful Number 23), Jim was back to what pays the bills: a straightforward high-concept comedy about a man ‘forced’ to change his ways for the better.  Liar Liar was the launching point, Bruce Almighty followed this well enough, and while Fun with Dick and Jane is largely forgettable, it was agreeable enough when watching (though one can’t ignore the diminishing returns).  With these films in mind, it was quite surprising how astonishingly bad Yes Man turned out to be.  All the elements were there:  the concept, a supporting cast that wouldn’t bother to compete with the lead, a journeyman director.  Somewhere it all went terribly wrong, as this film is not funny in the slightest, and without the comedy, all that’s left are the dull, lifeless components whose very purpose is to not get in the way. 

So why was Liar Liar successful and this film not?  The writing is the obvious answer, but it isn’t very much fun to just leave it at that.  The first, and perhaps most crucial problem, is that of the (lack of) magic realism.  Fitting that Carrey will soon be seen in the next Robert Zemeckis Motion-Capture-When-Oh-When-Will-They-Get-The-Eyes-Right adaptation as Scrooge, since the plot of Liar Liar, Bruce Almighty and (supposedly) Yes Man revolve around a closed-off man who has his outlook on life changed by external, supernatural forces.  Except, in Yes Man, they’re not.  The motivation of his greedy lawyer to change his dastardly ways was a birthday wish from his oft-ignored son.  Yes Man finds his character, Carl Allen, changed by a motivational speech given by Terrence Stamp.  The transition from closed-off, internal shy-boy to outgoing fun-freak is immediate and nonsensical.  The jarring shift leaves the audience disorientated to say the least.

It also doesn’t do any favours for Carrey’s rubber-faced mugging to the camera.  I think it can be generally accepted that the only situation in which this is works is if there is some logic to it.  Liar Liar found an excuse for it in that we were watching a man unable to control his own speech.  The shocked faces and flopping about were genuinely amusing, since his character was reacting in a fairly reasonable way to the circumstances in which he found himself.  Yes Man offers no such excuse, no such constructed reality to allow for it, leaving his character looking incredibly annoying, and Carrey himself rather desperate.  If I gave any credit to the team behind the film, I might give them the benefit of the doubt:  at least they know the script isn’t funny, so do whatever you can.  I don’t, however, so I’ll chalk it up to really, really poor judgment.  Now that the suspension of disbelief has been shattered, we’re free to witness one awful sequence after another as detached from the action as possible:  a bar fight that makes no sense, a sexual encounter with an old woman that speeds right on through Adam Sandler territory and makes camp in Rob Schneider hell, and the inevitable meet-cute with the pixie, Allison.

Zooey Deschanel has done well in the past, but I can’t help but think her range is limited to cynical and distant, with occasional charm peeping through.  Not, in other words, the romantic interest in a film like this, and certainly not with this writing.  She is the latest ‘pixie’, a hallowed character of recent years that manages to be absolutely beautiful, quirky beyond all reason, clever and independently minded, and also totally available to whatever hapless leading man crosses their path (see also:  Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethown and Natalie Portman in Garden State).  The downside is that they have no actual personality, and in this case, no charisma in sight.  Allison is an artist, photographer, and singer in an off-kilter band, but nothing at all beyond that aside from the token “I am insecure, you know” speech.  The rest of the supporting cast are best left ignored, aside from the notable presence of Rhys Darby as Carl’s boss.  He provides the only laugh I let out in the entire film, and even that was, at best, a Chandler line.  Like Rainn Wilson in My Super Ex-Girlfriend, they’ve pillaged a funny comedic character actor from a television show (In this case, Flight of the Conchords) and told him to be, well, the same character from the television show.

The director of Yes Man is one Peyton Reed, who stands out for me because eight years ago, I watched his commentary on his feature debut, Bring it On, and was absolutely convinced if that guy could make a film, I could too.  It was an unfair assessment that I’ll mostly put down to being a bratty film snob teenager, as since then he’s made three more films (including the hugely successful The Break-Up) and I’ve made none.  And furthermore, to his credit, this film’s failure really isn’t his fault.  He’s a journeyman, simply there to control the operation, point the camera, and shoot, and he does it with inoffensive aplomb.  For me, the script is almost wholly to blame for the problems of this film, and while I can’t say which of the three screenwriters (if not all) should take the brunt of the tongue-lashing, I did notice that one of said writers is none other than Nicholas Stoller.  Stoller made his directorial debut last year in the somewhat irksome Apatow/Segal comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a film that was directed by a man who seemed to have never seen a comedy before.  It was the case of a reasonably funny script lying dead on the screen due to the work behind the camera.  Now with him co-writing, we have a film that might work directorially, but lies dead in the writing.   The evidence is circumstantial, but it hardly works in Stoller’s favour.

The film trundles on through all the formulaic plot points it must hit.  Things go really well when he says “yes” to everything for a while, including getting a promotion at his bank because he is a loan officer who had to approve every loan (the film can’t be faulted for this potentially offensive development as it was written and filmed before the current crisis, but it does work as an unfair example of how it gets absolutely everything completely wrong).  The happiness has to end with one of the most ludicrous and contrived scenes I’ve seen in a while, the protagonist learns a valuable lesson, and there is a pointless climactic dangerous drive through the city to get to the girl he loves (though since she isn’t going anywhere, there really is absolutely no tension). A cookie-cutter film like this can be forgiven the obvious routes it must take in its story to please the audience if it earns the right through some degree of charm or humour, but Yes Man has no such right.  By pulling the audience out of the world of the film early on, it allows its creaky plot, poor characters, and wholly unfunny writing to be laid bare.  Because of that, we feel the weight of every one of its 104 minutes, which is the death sentence for any light comedy.

-M

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