It must be liberating for an actor to work with directors who routinely say, "You can ham it up all you want--there's no way you can overact this role." It must be equally comforting for a director to work with an actor willing to heed that advice. When you add a public that laps up the end product like dogs do their own vomit, you've got a unique creation that, for want of a better phrase, has become popularly known as "a Jim Carrey movie."

It would be easy to sit atop a highbrow mountain and disdain physical, obvious comedies like The Cable Guy from afar, as if a real knee-slapper were somehow beneath being taken seriously. But I won't try to fool Carrey devotees by wrongly suggesting that the movie short-changes you in laughs. There are many funny lines, often made outrageously humorous by the simple genius of Carrey's delivery. (When he deadpanned in his chewy lisp, "Promise me one thing: Never go bungee jumping in Mexico," it took all my will power just to keep from peeing in my pants.)

There's a special sort of mania to his personality that transcends the slapstick routines of The Three Stooges or even the all-out buffoonery of Jerry Lewis. Like the comedy of Robin Williams and Steve Martin, and even Michael Richards' Kramer character from Seinfeld, the real source of Carrey's humor arises from his sense of daring, the risks he takes just to entertain. He's always working at acting, at perfecting a goofy persona while showing the humane, attractive qualities of his characters. He lays everything on the line, and he's put a lot of confidence in us to respect him for being naked up there on the screen. With such blind faith in his own defiant rawness, Carrey should consider pairing up with Quentin Tarantino, since together they've championed an entirely new subculture: geek chic.

But since The Cable Guy shoots for something more than Ace Ventura: TV Installer--it fancies itself not as a humble laugh maker, but a satiric riff on the television age--the question isn't merely whether the movie's funny. Rather, assuming Carrey's core followers would watch him brush his teeth for 90 minutes, Is there anything else to recommend it?

There's no denying that screenwriter Lou Holtz Jr. and director Ben Stiller are trying to come up with reasons to make it good, and at times The Cable Guy nearly succeeds; you have to be willing to re-aim your sights and think of it not as a cutting-edge feature film, but an episode of Dream On as conceived by the Coen brothers. But after an hour of false starts and unfulfilled promises, it becomes clear that the movie has nothing new to say, and no interesting way to say it. It simply deteriorates before our eyes.

Chip (Carrey) is a tongue-tied intruder who hooks up Steven (Matthew Broderick) to his idiot box and, in exchange for free premium channels, asks only for Steven's friendship. In movies like this, though, the kind of friendship Chip wants is more than Steven bargained for. "Hanging out" devolves into stalking, and real life is filtered through the warm glow of the cathode ray tube. Chip represents the ultimate in utilities employees run amok: He's Lily Tomlin's irritating telephone operator, Ernestine, taken to the level of genuine psychopath.

That gray area between biting parody and self-glorification is always a murky one, and while The Cable Guy doesn't really glorify TV culture, it relies heavily on our acceptance of it as a presence in our lives and our collective consciousness. (Even Chip seems to be nothing more than a rerun of another annoying TV archetype, the Nosy Neighbor.) Steven is the intended object of criticism, leading as he does a life of emotional separateness, an existence in which cozy, debilitating isolation--exemplified by his reliance on television to palliate his ills--has replaced interpersonal contact. But whereas the movie seems to embrace the necessity of genuine human interaction, forcing Steven to connect on a human level, it also extols the dangers of contact. Chip is so dangerously unstable, you can't help but wonder whether Steven's remoteness is more sensible than antisocial.

The Cable Guy contains perhaps Carrey's best film acting yet (aside from Batman Forever), and Broderick makes a likable Everyman, but the movie is almost stolen out from under them by a couple of cameos. Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick (two alums from Stiller's TV sketch-comedy show) are perfectly pitched in a satire of Medieval Times, and Dallas native Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket) does a great job as a pushy prig who gets the crap beat out of him by Carrey in a restaurant bathroom. They fit neatly into the film's gonzo aesthetic.

But while aspects of The Cable Guy resemble Blown Away, Cape Fear, and other films, its most obvious spiritual forebear is Barton Fink. In both, the hero has his world disturbed not just by some miffed ex-associate out for revenge but by a virtual stranger obsessed with encroaching on his comfort zone. It is in this extended metaphor that The Cable Guy and Barton Fink suffer from terminal "so what?" syndrome. At least Barton Fink was failed art striving for entertainment; The Cable Guy, in comparison, is failed entertainment that seems wrong-headed in its belief that it is art. The filmmakers shouldn't have tried to make it anything more than what it really is: a Jim Carrey movie.

It would probably be easy for me to get hopped up over how casually writer-director Pen Densham butchers Daniel Dafoe's novel Moll Flanders, except I have to confess I've never read the book, nor had much interest in doing so. At least Densham admits the book was just his model for riffing on the independent spirit of a woman. (He claims to have made the film as a Valentine to his daughter.) Densham's movie isn't compelling or sexy, but it has a professional, quiet dignity to it. It's the Classic Comics version of a dry novel.

Moll (Robin Wright) is the boorish 18th-century heroine whose refusal to conform to societal norms feeds her ferocious self-reliance while condemning her to lowbrow status amid class-conscious English culture. Like Steven in The Cable Guy, she too learns the hard way how fleeting is our grasp on life's minor luxuries: With appalling ease, she goes from high-priced call girl to common hooker and back again. Even so, Moll hardens too fast, and the film loses its edge to the romantic realism it otherwise tries to cultivate.

Many of the problems with Moll Flanders can be traced directly to Wright's performance. She's not an actress of great range, and in film after film she has an annoying habit of building an emotional wall between herself and the audience. As Densham writes the character, Moll should be a beautiful soul, the type men can spot in any guise, but as Wright plays her, Moll is simply not clever, charming, or guileless enough to be so captivating.

Fortunately, Morgan Freeman and Stockard Channing are on hand to give a boost to their scenes. They're both fine character actors, and they make Densham's excellent dialogue come to life where Wright fails. Channing's catlike interpretation of a wicked madam is especially delicious, so it's too bad the film goes long stretches without her.

Moll Flanders doesn't tackle the social issues of English life like the Merchant-Ivory films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day) or the recent film adaptations of Jane Austen novels (Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion), but it is a modest, qualified success: It doesn't set out to be anything more than a clean, middle-of-the-road period romance centered on a strong woman, and as unambitious as that may sound, at least it hits its mark.

Moll Flanders. MGM-UA. Robin Wright, Morgan Freeman, Stockard Channing. Written and directed by Pen Densham. Now showing.

The Cable Guy. Columbia. Jim Carrey, Matthew Broderick. Written by Lou Holtz Jr. Directed by Ben Stiller. Now showing.


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