YES MAN tries to be two kinds of Jim Carrey movies at once and fails twice over. The result is a flat and unappetizing work that is neither serious enough to win over an audience looking for something of substance, nor wacky enough to satisfy fans of the manic Carrey of THE MASK or ACE VENTURA vintage.
Carrey is Carl, a bland man in a bland bank job who has spent the three years since his divorce vegging out on his sofa watching DVDs. His pals have pretty much had it with him ducking out on a social life, and his boss (Rhys Darby), an uber-nerd with unfortunate ways with nicknames, doesn’t see a reason to promote his underling beyond his junior loan officer status. Enter an old pal (John Michael Higgins), who regales Carl with magic tales of trips to Africa and a life full of possibilities. That would be the teachings of a motivational guru (Terrence Stamp) who teaches the possibilities of saying “yes” to everything and opening himself up to life without reservation. The old pal illustrates his point by taking a rock and throwing it through the front window of the bank where Carl works. Security guards become involved and somehow that convinces Carl to attend one of the guru’s seminars, where he is singled out by the guru for special attention that results in a covenant wherein every time that Carl says no, bad things will happen to him. Hence the homeless man whom Carl drives to the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Personal safety is not, it seems, a valid excuse to break the convenant.
It’s LIAR LIAR without the schtick. Well, most of the schtick. Carrey spends the bulk of the film in a mildly catatonic state, punctuated with brief bouts of the sort of antics that catapulted him to fame, though here they seem half-hearted at best. Even scotch-taping his face into unnatural configurations feels tired. As for the yeses that come thick and fast, naturally they lead him to the girl of his dreams, Alison (Zooey Deschanel), who can be identified as suitably zany because she rides a scooter instead of driving a car, and her helmet has cartoon eyes painted on it. Naturally they further lead him to discover life’s wonders. In order to keep the story chugging along, there are a few distasteful gags at the expense of Fionnula Flanagan as Carl’s elderly neighbor and of lovers of guitar music everywhere. There are also complications, but of such an arbitrary and contrived variety that instead of building conflict and tension, they point up the creakiness of the writing. Zany Alison becomes huffy when she discovers that Carl has been married and divorced? One can only scratch one’s head and ponder what part of the script was either never written, or was so edited to remove why that would make any sense whatsoever.
There is nothing here to make an audience go “ah” or even “awww” as the energy, never abundant, ebbs away quickly as the story circles the metaphorical drain. There is, however, plenty to make it go “yeesh” and not in a good way. Carrey, who has done excellent dramatic work in THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, doesn’t have the same focus. When he is low-key and hang-dog, he is barely interesting, when he indulges in physical humor, he flails. Deschanel, with her big blue eyes and raspy voice, seems bored rather than smitten. Stamp alone emerges triumphant, soaring above the role and the material with an imperious presence that slyly sends up the motivational guru phenomenon with plumy tones and a magisterial stride.
YES MAN is a dull as Carl is at the beginning of his adventure. Unlike that character, though, the film about him remains firmly in the doldrums, taking its audience along with it.