The actor dials down his manic tendencies and lets a couple of co-stars shine.
Here's a performing challenge. Imagine being cast opposite Jim Carrey and being told that you're the oddball in the relationship. That daunting task falls to two co-stars in Carrey's knockabout romantic comedy "Yes Man," and both times the actors make it work.
"Yes Man" is a sort of New Age "Christmas Carol." Carrey stars as Carl, a grumpy bank employee who has pulled into his shell after a failed marriage. He lounges in front of the TV rather than joining his pals at the bar, refuses to re-enter the dating pool and rebuffs friendly advances from his clueless supervisor Norm (scene-stealing Rhys Darby of HBO's "Flight of the Conchords"). Carl's only pleasure in life comes in rejecting loan applications. He's a one-man black hole of bored, listless negativity, crushing all ambition and imagination that enter his gravitational field.
Realizing that he's losing touch with everything, Carl follows a friend's advice and attends a self-actualization seminar whose guru (Terrence Stamp) extracts a promise. Carl swears an oath to say "yes" to whatever prospects life places in his path. Take every chance, grab every opportunity, no matter how absurd.
It's not a formula for instant happiness. A night of agreeing to buy every round at a bar leaves Carl broke, hung over and battered from an alley brawl. But saying "no" means paralysis, and Carl gradually discovers exciting new possibilities opening for him. A thankless errand introduces him to a pixieish rocker (Zooey Deschanel) who might be the girl of his dreams. Approving every cockeyed loan request that crosses his desk wins him the attention of the bank bosses. He's living life. But the obligation to say yes to competing requests snowballs to the point that Carl risks losing everything he has gained.
Carrey dials down his Roman-candle goofiness here. Grimaces, pratfalls and butt shots notwithstanding, this is, by his standards, a restrained performance, and it gives the film a nice balance. When Carrey does a one-man show, you can come away feeling pummeled. "Yes Man" gives Darby and Deschanel full-fledged supporting roles, and they help carry the film along quite capably. Darby's Norm is excruciatingly funny, responding to every rebuff by Carl like a Whack-A-Mole target, energetically popping up again and again. He invites Carl to costume parties that are bad beyond description and tries to pull him into awkward man-hugs. Norm would be mortified if he realized how pathologically clumsy his overtures are, but Darby turns awkward social discomfort into genuine empathy. He makes us feel protective of Norm even as we cringe. Carl's dawning realization that this insufferable co-worker is actually rather sweet is akin to Scrooge's slow warming to the downtrodden Bob Cratchits of the world.
Playing Carrey's love interest, the fetching Deschanel has the most challenging role: She has to be quirkier than Mr. Hyperactivity himself. As the singer in a pretentious art-rock band, she gets an opportunity to show off her marvelous voice. And she balances against her formidable co-star with the same droll understatement she used when serving as Will Ferrell's foil in "Elf." Deschanel's pollywog eyes were made to express skepticism and unspoken reservations.
There are flat performances in the film (John Michael Higgins is unpersuasive as Carl's reprobate friend), false situations and bad lines, but the laughs are there and the message about personal transformation is timeless. Worth seeing? Yes.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186