I like Peyton Reed. I think he’s underappreciated. He has directed three previous films, all of them mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies, two of them medium-sized hits (2000’s Bring It On and 2006’s The Break-Up), none of them runaway successes. His flashiest work was his 2003 period farce Down With Love, but it was also his biggest flop. His direction has been unobtrusive on his other films, and all his movies have been headlined by A-list stars, so audiences tend to think of them as belonging to those stars instead of the director.
Yet Reed brings exquisite craftsmanship to these pieces of middlebrow entertainment. His movies feature crisp pacing, musical interludes instead of sentimental speeches, emotions that are always genuine even when the acting is highly stylized, and three-dimensional supporting characters that are as funny and interesting as the lead roles. They’re luscious and warm, filled with a generosity of spirit that makes even something as acrimonious as The Break-Up feel oddly cheering.
So it goes with his latest comedy, Yes Man, which is being sold as a Jim Carrey vehicle even though its star’s stale antics are the least interesting thing about it. Carrey plays Carl, an antisocial jerk who hates his increasingly lonely life and his dead-end job as an S&L loan officer. He’s prime material for membership in a cult, and he finds a particularly annoying one that tells him to say “yes” to more things in life. He takes their directive to an illogical extreme, approving every loan request that comes across his desk, signing up for lessons in aviation and Korean, and accepting the sexual overtures of his septuagenarian neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan). Refreshingly, he winds up quite liking the sex, but that’s before his chance meeting with Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a creative spirit whose impulses have led her to work several odd jobs.
The film’s nominally based on a memoir by British journalist Danny Wallace chronicling his attempt to live this way for a year, but the story is so different you wonder why the writers bothered crediting Wallace. Most Hollywood comedies would turn this material into a sermon on how you should live your life. This film redeems its flimsy premise by presenting itself as the story of how this one bitter guy finds an unusual way to shake himself out of his depression.
Even better, the comedy bits are genuinely funny and utilize everyone in the cast, from a forceful Bradley Cooper as Carl’s disenchanted best friend to a slightly unhinged Terence Stamp as the cult leader and The Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby as Carl’s emotionally needy boss who organizes a series of ultra-dorky theme parties. The film’s comic highlight is Allison’s turn as the lead singer of an absurd art-rock band called Munchausen by Proxy, whose members dress up like sea horses. It’s nice to see the doll-like Deschanel send up her real-life musical career and undercut her own lyrical presence by playing ridiculousness with such flair. Carrey, meanwhile, has some moments like the scene where he talks a suicidal man (an uncredited Luis Guzmán) off a window ledge, but he’s generally inert here. The star is supposed to carry the material, but Yes Man is a relatively rare instance of good material and direction carrying the star.