Friday, November 14, 2008

A High-Concept Disappointment?: Analyzing the Yes Man Trailer

Anyone else find that their television sets were inundated with TV spots for Jim Carrey’s new comedy, Yes Man, during the end of September and early October? It struck me as odd that they would start pushing the film so forcefully on television with the release date a solid two months away (the website says 12/19/08 but the ads vaguely state Christmas). The plot involves a callous jerk who rejects most ideas and people but one day changes his mind (or maybe gets hypnotized by Terrence Stamp?) and finds himself unable to respond to a question in anything other than the affirmative. The problem with marketing a high-concept formula like this is that the core humor of the film is contained in set pieces and easily extractable dialogue exchanges (e.g. Carrey receives an e-mail asking if he would like to increase the size of his penis and he answers aloud to his co-workers) that work just as well as stand-alone clips as they do in the context of the film. This means that the film itself can only be effective if the threads holding together the set pieces are strong enough to match the comedic high jinks already consumed for free in the advertising. You can’t sit through a 90-minute film exclusively made of Carrey responding yes to crazy/embarrassing questions (it’s hard enough stringing it out in a 2-minute trailer) so by fundamental nature of plot concerns, it needs to contain extra material to stretch out the conceit past sketch-length. But the problem is that the marketing sells it solely on the high-concept scenario and that’s what will compel people to head out to the multiplex. As the advertisements already offer a vast array of these scenarios, the film is setting itself up for failure, at least in terms of quality if not finance – it takes a lot for a Carrey comedy to gross under $100 million.

The most obvious comparisons to previous Jim Carrey vehicles are Liar Liar and Bruce Almighty. The Yes Man trailer seems very much in the same mold as Liar Liar. Yes Man is adapted from a 2006 memoir of the same name by British journalist Danny Wallace. According to Publishers Weekly Wallace was inspired to answer yes to everything by an encounter with a stranger on a bus. His decision to spend a year saying yes was self-governed. But the marketing for the film makes it look like Carrey’s decision is not entirely self-motivated as we see a clip of him getting hit on the head by a motivational speaker and blankly responding yes. The implication here is that his decision to say yes is against his will (i.e. “I CAAAAAN’T LIIIIIIIEEEEE”). Scrutiny of the subsequent dialogue in the trailer suggests that his character is merely influenced by the motivational speaker rather than possessed but still, the connection to the zany antics of Liar Liar is firmly established.

Based on the subsequent montage of Carrey flying a plane, riding a motorbike, playing DDR and talking down a suicide attempt, the film follows a fairly rote formula of nasty, up-tight guy reclaims life by opening himself to new experiences and discovering humanity. No wonder the marketing keeps pushing the word Christmas – when else to release such schmaltzy fare?
Liar Liar’s strength beyond the conceit of Carrey being unable to lie was that it was actually a fairly wholesome family film that not only tickled funny bones but warmed hearts with its story of a fractured family’s fairy tale reconciliation. Bruce Almighty on the other hand, in which Carrey is bestowed deity powers from God, turned fairly lame fairly quickly once the “I’ve Got the Power” montage was over and the syrupy goodwill-to-all themes took over. Too risqué for a family film but not riotous enough for the post-teenage crowd, Bruce Almighty flounders when it isn’t milking its conceit. Could Yes Man follow suit?

Well, Yes Man is co-written by Nicolas Stoller who directed the simultaneously raunchy and cuddly Forgetting Sarah Marshall and collaborated on the screenplay for another Carey vehicle, Fun with Dick and Jane, so perhaps there is some potential for Yes Man to sustain itself beyond its central shtick. Fun with Dick and Jane was based on an easily marketable ploy – suburban mom and dad turn to petty crime to pay the bills – but excelled by using its concise running time to efficiently comment on corporate greed and the state of the American economy (maybe it was released 3 years too early?) rather than loading up on easy set-pieces. True, the moment of Carrey accidentally sticking up a friend was in every commercial but there was a darker current to that scene in the actual film.

Fun with Dick and Jane is one of Carrey’s lesser remembered broad comedies, despite grossing $110 million in 2005, it’s faded from memory due to its less easily extractable comic scenarios and its mostly negative reviews. James Berardinelli at ReelViews criticized Carrey for being past his prime and for yearning to recapture the glory of his early comedies: “Carrey's antics give the appearance of someone out of practice trying too hard. They're more awkward than funny. His body's not as plastic at age 43 as it was at age 32.” I disagreed with him then but fear that it might be necessary to reposition his point toward the case of Yes Man. In the new film, Carrey’s pals seem to be played by Danny Masterson (That 70s Show) and Bradley Cooper (Wedding Crashers) and his romantic interest is Zooey Deschanel (Elf). Carrey (who turns 47 in Januarys) is almost 15 years older than all of them and their casting can’t help but underline the fact that Carrey has gotten too old for this kind of comedy. Aging down the female romantic interest is a sad but inevitable trend in Hollywood but even aging down the buddies? It’s possible the filmmakers will work this age discrepancy into the plot for some added poignancy but something tells me it’s more likely to go by untouched.

But I mean don’t get me wrong, it’s still a Jim Carrey movie so I’ll definitely see it when it opens. It’ll probably be lame but I can’t say no to the man who brought Ace Ventura into the world. My main gripe (for now) is with the advanced promotion and how it preordains the film as a letdown. Next time a TV spot appears during SNL or The Office I’ll just have to switch the channel in the hope of preserving any fresh yuletide yuks for my multiplex viewing.

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