The Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man almost has an interesting premise: Jim Carrey, as part of a self-help movement, must say “yes” to everything. It’s like an inversion of the Melville story Bartleby the Scrivener, in which Bartleby replies to every request that “[he’d] prefer not to.” And the film’s tagline, “Yes is the new no” -- taken from the self-help group’s slogan -- seems to promise something similarly subversive. Unfortunately, rather than doing anything interesting, Yes Man is much more concerned with using its “yes” premise to put Carrey in ridiculous situations within an extremely stale romantic comedy arc.
With all the nuance of a late-night infomercial for acne medicine, we’re shown both "Pre-Self-Help Seminar" Carey, sitting in his apartment watching movies and screening calls from friends, and "Self-Help Seminar" Carrey, taking guitar, Korean, and flying lessons, embarking on internet shopping sprees, clubbing all night, and going jog-photographing in the morning (more on this later). Obviously, this is an improvement, but it’s also easy to see the frenetic and wholesale manner of Carrey’s activity in almost as despairing a light as his previous inactivity: the affirmation of everything is at the same time the affirmation of nothing in particular, and it’s just as hard to see a human character with commitments and concerns in total-affirmation Carrey as it was in total-negation Carrey.
To its credit, the film does take a stab at addressing this problem when it has Carrey reject — i.e., say his first “no” to — his ex-wife’s advances in order to be with Zooey Deschanel, his adorable love interest. There: Carrey has made a choice; he’s recognized the necessity of sacrificing some things in order to pursue others. But I’m (perhaps ungenerously) inclined to see this merely as the result of the writers’ refusal to give an extremely conventional romantic comedy a polygamous ending, because this realization — the realization that affirming something requires negating other things — affects no other part of the film.
This is evident when looking at Deschanel’s character, whose held up as the ideal of realistic life-affirmation. Deschanel plays in a band, paints, volunteers, and runs the jogging photography club — as in, they take photographs while they jog, the reductio ad absurdum of multitasking. Indeed, Yes Man’s message remains intact: affirming life is nothing more than the quantitative increase in activities and diversions rather than the nourishing of purpose or focus. Actually, strengthened, as if the film were saying "Clearly, saying yes to everything is ridiculous, but this…."
Maybe I’m being unfair. Yes Man doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a lite romantic comedy, and as that, it’s not bad — Carrey’s antics are entertaining enough and Deschanel is darling. But the film makes such a point of being life-affirming that I think it’s fair to ask exactly what it means by that.