Thursday, December 18, 2008

Yes Man: Affirmative!

Yes Man (2008) • View trailer for Yes Man
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for brief profanity, fleeting nudity and smutty sexual content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.18.08
Buy DVD: Yes Man • Buy Blu-Ray: Yes Man [Blu-ray]

After a depressing stretch that began with 2000's The Majestic and continued through Fun with Dick and Jane and last year's gawdawful Number 23 — with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind the only ray of, well, sunshine — I'm happy to report that Jim Carrey is back.

The clever and funny Jim Carrey. The guy who made such a splash with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber.
When his socially inept boss invites him to a Harry Potter theme party, the
suddenly always agreeable Carl (Jim Carrey) embraces the moment — in a
rented costume several sizes too small — with his new girlfriend, Allison
(Zooey Deschanel).

The actor who knew, once upon a time, how to modulate his goofy, giddy deliver in order to maximize genuine laughs ... as opposed to wigging out entirely on camera, and becoming the sort of tediously desperate man-child on which the likes of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly have built entire careers.

Carrey's always had much more talent than that, but many of his artistic decisions have been ... inadvisable. Like Robin Williams, Carrey wants to stretch and exercise his more serious side: display the inner human being who hides beneath the exterior clown. Sometimes the results have been captivating, as with The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine.

Then again, The Majestic and Number 23 were anything but captivating.

Happily, though, Carrey and director Peyton Reed have found the sweet spot with Yes Man. Carrey's Carl Allen, while frequently an unrestrained cut-up, never goes too far overboard; we're always able to relate to him as an actual person, which persuasively sells this guy's response to an unusual life-path decision.

Then again, maybe the success of Yes Man can be attributed to co-star Zooey Deschanel, who I've decided is one of Hollywood's best secret weapons. She also contributed to the charm of Elf, one of the few palatable Will Ferrell comedies. Deschanel's measured snarkiness helps ground the puffed-up tendencies of her high-profile co-stars; she has both a deadpan stare and comic timing to die for.

Deschanel made Ferrell better than he deserved to be in Elf, and she similarly helps Carrey's character here. They fit well together.

Carl, still pining over a marriage that hit the shoals several years earlier, has become a nabob of negativity. It comes easily at work, where as a bank loan officer he routinely stamps "rejected" on every application that crosses his desk. But this attitude also spills over into his social life, to the growing consternation of best buds Peter (Bradley Cooper, late of TV's Alias) and Rooney (Danny Masterson).

Indeed, Carl has become such a shut-in that he's in danger of losing his friends forever.

Everything changes after Carl attends a "Power of Yes" seminar led by a self-help guru (Terrence Stamp, excellent in this small role), who advises his audiences to embrace life's myriad opportunities by "just saying yes." Although more cowed than convinced by the seminar's tenets, Carl reluctantly embraces the concept; of course, his nature dictates that he embrace it too much, and thus starts accepting all offers, requests and demands.

The script — credited to Nicholas Stoller, Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel, from a book by Danny Wallace — threatens to go off the rails early on, as Carl cheerfully gives a lift, his phone and all his cash to a homeless guy, who's savvy enough to keep asking for fresh favors. We can see this sort of thing getting too silly, but the narrative settles down once these first few selfless deeds lead to Carl's meeting with Allison (Deschanel).

Now convinced that good things will come from his adherence to the "yes covenant," Carl embraces all offers that come his way.

The free-spirited Allison is everything that Carl's former self was too frightened to be: spontaneous, instinctively cheerful and always willing to indulge a slightly bent artistic streak.

That means leading an early morning troupe of joggers who snap photographs while on the move, or fronting a whacked-out experimental band dubbed Munchausen By Proxy, which draws a faithful crowd so small that Allison can greet the half-dozen listeners by name.

Although defiantly weird, the band's songs are a hoot, and you must listen carefully to the lyrics. (Deschanel co-wrote them with the actual San Francisco band Von Iva, the members of whom play Allison's bandmates.)

Aside from the increasingly perplexed Peter and Rooney — who aren't too befuddled to take advantage of their best friend's new willingness to try any alcoholic concoction or pick up every bar tab — the other key character in Carl's life is his boss, Norm (New Zealand actor/comedian Rhys Darby, quite amusing), a hapless misfit several social skills short of qualifying even as a geek.

Norm desperately wants Carl to think of him as a friend, rather than a supervisor; the new Carl, of course, is happy to oblige. And while this initially heads into goofy territory, the evolving relationship eventually displays a more serious side.

And that's why Yes Man works so well. Although certainly a comedy, it makes several persuasive arguments about the need to seize the moment. Most of us would, without question, benefit from a bit more spontaneity.

As is sadly typical of too many comedies these days, though, Yes Man does indulge in a crude streak, mostly related to Carl's per- sistently friendly neighbor, Tillie (Fionnula Flanagan), a senior citizen with a ferociously randy nature. Absent this sidebar character and one wholly superfluous F-bomb, this could have been a family-friendly comedy.

Too bad it had to be needlessly vulgarized in order to secure the PG-13 rating believed to guarantee better box office results.

Such missteps are minor, though, when stacked against the film's greater charms. It's marvelous to see Carrey back in proper form, and his scenes with Deschanel are genuinely sweet.

The result is a thoroughly delightful romantic comedy that succeeds as both comedy and romance ... an increasingly rare creature, these days.

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