Yes Man wants badly to be a raucous, conventional Hollywood comedy, but the shoe doesn’t fit. There’s a thoughtful story here struggling to bloom, and the movie stamps it down at every opportunity. Even Jim Carrey’s classic manic energy, usually so welcome, is oppressive. This is a woefully unimaginative treatment of material that deserved better.
I’m immensely sympathetic to the message inherent in the concept. This is a movie about a surly loan officer who is challenged to spend some time saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes along, no matter how silly or outrageous. It doesn’t take a genius to guess what lessons he learns in the process. And yet this is a great set-up for a film: potentially rousing, funny, and premised on an easily digestible but undeniable truth. It practically begs for something simple, good-natured and earnest.
But Yes Man, for some reason, kicks and flails at its own good fortune, adorning its beautifully simple conceit with chunks of hoary Hollywood formula that it doesn’t need and that serves it poorly. Consider, for example, the notion of protagonist Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) being the type of guy who says “no” to things to his own detriment. How would you portray this? I bet you’d make him reluctant, withdrawn, maybe a little surly, locking himself in his apartment while the whole rest of the world is out having fun. Not for Yes Man such subtlety. Here, Carl literally says no — all the time. He’s notorious for it. Sometimes he says “no” before the other person has a chance to ask anything. Sometimes the other person will begin to ask something, cut himself off, and say something like “let me guess: ‘no.'”
Carl decides to make “yes” his mantra after attending a self-help seminar where a guru (Terrence Stamp) extolls the virtues of the word. Immediately after he makes his pledge, of course, a hobo asks him for a ride, and then demands his cash. I perked up, thinking that Yes Man was preemptively illustrating the absurdity of taking the “say-yes-to-everything” covenant literally. But no: Carl’s predicament — he eventually runs out of gas and has to hoof it down the road to the canister — leads to his meeting the beautiful Allison (Zooey Deschanel), who then gives him a ride back to his car on her scooter.
Maybe the most bewilderingly dumb move Yes Man makes is to add a quasi-supernatural karmic dimension to its gimmick. It’s not just that, on the whole, good things come from “yes” and little that’s useful comes from “no.” Rather, if Carl says “no,” he will immediately fall down the stairs and be attacked by a dog. This lowers the film’s IQ a good 30 points, serves no purpose, and isn’t funny. With Jim Carrey in full Ace Ventura mugging mode, was it really necessary to make the proceedings still more “madcap” by adding these pointless stretches of slapstick?
The lesson, ultimately, is that saying “yes” to things will enrich your life, but that it’s cool to say “no” if it’s something you genuinely don’t want to do. (Otherwise — well, you can imagine.) Fair enough — but I wonder if this lesson really needed to be learned via Allison finding out about Carl’s “covenant” and becoming outraged at the idea that he was only with her because he had to say “yes” to everything and not because he wanted to be. In other words, the same “I was a bet/a job?!” scene that appears in every high concept romantic comedy ever made. This, of course, is followed by the obligatory mournful montage of the two of them solitary and despondent. Yes Man‘s third act is really egregious — it drags on forever and offers nothing but raw rom-com formula.
Jim Carrey’s presence is as appealing now as it was a decade ago, but his endless facial and verbal contortions are still another contrived, unnecessary piece of business. Yes Man ruins a great idea by striving to be indistinguishable from every gimmicky romantic comedy Hollywood has made in the last half-century.