Yes is the new no in Yes Man, a Jim Carrey comedy that has him covering much of the same ground he did in Liar Liar. It's an often-engaging romance shot through with sweetness, a movie that hangs on a handful of simple, magical scenes.
The first comes when Carl Allen, a morose, divorced loner of a loan officer, is talked into attending a self-help seminar. In a room full of delirious Yes!-shouting cultists, Carl is confronted by "The Yes Man" himself, Terrence Bundley. The great Terence Stamp — and his menacing, owlish eyes of many a movie villain — hurls himself at Carl, urging/ordering him to "embrace the possible. Say yes to everything!"
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The movie, based on a Danny Wallace book, written by Carrey collaborators and directed by Peyton Reed, who botched The Break-Up, shows us the wondrous possibilities — and the limitations — in that free-spirited philosophy.
Carl says "yes" to giving a bum a lift. He lets the guy use his phone (John Michael Higgins is the yes "sponsor" who nags Carl into this). That leads to running out of gas with a dead phone and a sparks-flying first meeting with Allison, a real free spirit played by Zooey Deschanel.
Carl signs up for guitar lessons and Korean-language classes. He responds to spam from Persianwifefinder.com. He says "yes" to a Harry Potter-themed party thrown by his needy, nerdy boss (Rhys Darby). And he approves loans: every hair-brained business or personal loan pitch that crosses his desk.
All this spontaneity leads to another magic moment — a "let's sneak into the Hollywood Bowl and sing" scene with Allison that climaxes with an adorable Beatles duet sung on an empty stage.
Everything Carl embraces pays personal dividends. Well, almost everything. And every time he says no, the karma goes bad.
Deschanel, she of the quirky timing and quirkier bangs, is perfectly cast as a scooter-driving flake who fronts a band named Munchausen by Proxy and leads a jogging photography club (they shoot pictures while they run). She gives the movie a chance to be as romantic as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It isn't, sadly. Yes Man attempts to update Carrey's comic genius for a ruder, cruder Judd Apatow-Frat Pack comedy universe. The film surrounds him with less-funny pals (Bradley Cooper of Alias and Wedding Crashers and Danny Masterson of That '70s Show), injects one funny but off-key sex-with-the-elderly joke and tries to make Carrey, a brilliant soloist, an ensemble player.
It's the soloist who delivers the third magical moment here, as Carl uses his guitar lessons to sing a suicidal man (Luis Guzman) off a ledge. Carrey's comedy is aggressive but sweet. The Apatow style is crude with a hint of sweet. They don't quite mesh.
The script caves in on itself when the multiple writers (one an Apatow alum) conjure up artificial obstacles to the romance and the pitfalls of living your life through self-help slogans. And there aren't enough Bruce Almighty/Liar Liar Carrey set pieces to give this the zing of those, his last wholly formed comedies.
But it's great to see Carrey switch off the glum and the grim — The Number 23, anyone? — and embrace the comically possible again. Let's hope he says "yes" to more funny films before he ages out of them altogether.