Yes Man (United States, 2008)
At first glance, Yes Man appears to be yet another high-concept Jim Carrey comedy. After all, the premise can be summed up in a sentence: "A character played by Carrey in 'zany form' must say 'yes' to every proposal." Over the years, we have gotten used to these kinds of movies from the guy who was once best known as a Pet Detective, so one could not be faulted for assuming that Yes Man would be a lot like Liar, Liar and Bruce Almighty in tone and intent. However, while a viewer might be expecting a screwball, he/she ends up with a changeup. Because, despite all the funnyman Carrey trappings, this is, in essence, a fairly generic romantic comedy. Carrey does enough mugging at the beginning to fool us into thinking Yes Man is something other than what it is, but the minute Zooey Deschanel appears, the movie takes a left turn. Deschanel isn't just a token female love interest in a Carrey movie. She's a legitimate romantic foil. And that makes the movie a little different from how it's being sold.
The success of a romantic comedy is tied to the two leads. Basically, all you need is two actors who play well off each other and a screenplay that gets out of their way. For the most part, that's what Yes Man provides. The writing isn't great and the comedy is of the hit-and-miss variety that characterizes many of Carrey's movies, but he and Deschanel click. So when they're together, we tend to forget the clumsy, over-the-top premise and the awkwardness of some of the secondary characters. Instead, we're given two lonely people meeting by accident, connecting, discovering that they like being with one another, and going on a vacation to Lincoln, Nebraska.
In recent years, Carrey has been expanding his cinematic repertoire, trying different roles that fans would not have expected from him back when he was hotter than fire in the early '90s. However, the more contained Carrey is, the better his performance. Here, after some opening nods to his "old self," he settles down to play a mostly straightforward romantic comedy leading man. I have always believed Deschanel to be underrated as an actress. Yes, she was terrible in The Happening and even worse in the unreleased Gigantic, but All the Real Girls and Winter Passing show what she's capable of. She avoids overacting. She's low-key in the best sense of the word and lets her expressive eyes convey a lot of what her character is feeling. Flamboyance may win Oscar nominations, but this kind of performance is truer in capturing the essence of the character. In Yes Man, she and Carrey have it - the chemistry (the word is overused but appropriate) necessary for the romantic aspects of the movie to gain traction.
Carl Allen (Carrey) is a "no man" - someone who says "no" to every opportunity and would never dream of doing anything spontaneous. That's when an old pal (John Michael Higgins) drags him to a seminar presided over by the new-age guru-ish Terrence Bundley (Terence Stamp), who preaches about the power of "Yes" and encourages Carl to enter into a covenant whereby he will say "yes" to everything. Things don't start out well, however. He gives all his money to a homeless man and ends up on a hike to a gas station after his car runs dry. But things take a turn for the better when he meets Allison (Deschanel), a woman who is in many ways his complete opposite and in other ways his perfect match. He finds that he can't say "no" to her - until she asks one tricky question.
One of the best things Yes Man does is give the leads enough screen time together to make their growing attraction believable. A growing trend in recent romantic comedies is to clutter the story with so many extraneous elements that the protagonists have only a few token scenes in each other's company. The film also provides a nice satire of near-religious self-help philosophies, and Terence Stamp is the perfect spokesperson - creepy yet strangely compelling. The film's final scene reminds us forcefully of the moral from the parable of "The Emperor's New Clothes." The best sequence in the film may be the unplanned vacation to Nebraska, which is suffused with a strange aura of magic. Speaking of magic, there are enough nods to Harry Potter that this could almost be seen as 2008's unofficial replacement for rescheduled The Half-Blood Prince. Carrey as Harry? Deschanel as Hermione?
The humor, which isn't as pervasive as we have come to expect from Jim Carrey movies, has its highs and its lows. The least appealing scene involves an elderly woman, dentures, and oral sex (you can fill in the blanks). It's surprising that the vulgarity of this gag didn't earn the film an R-rating, but trying to figure out the MPAA these days is an exercise in futility. (Slumdog Millionaire, anyone?) Some of Carrey's physical humor is amusing, if not inspired, although he apparently suffered cracked ribs as a result of one particular stunt.
No one is going to argue that Yes Man is Oscar-caliber material, but it fills a necessary lower-brow niche when there are so many prestige offerings on screens. Just as during the summer, when it's nice to get something smart to provide relief from the non-stop barrage of spectacle, so it's pleasant to watch something a little less intellectually taxing between all the would-be Oscar contenders. Yes Man is that movie - undemanding, light, and enjoyable on its own terms.
Yes Man (United States, 2008)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Zooey Deschanel, Bradley Cooper, John Michael Higgins, Rhys Darby, Terence Stamp, Fionnula Flanagan
Screenplay: Nicholas Stoller and Jarrad Paul & Andrew Mogel, based on the book by Danny Wallace
Cinematography: Robert D. Yeoman
Music: Mark Everett, Lyle Workman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers