It’s difficult to ignore $20 million. Just ask the bewildered moviegoers who first caught glimpse of The Cable Guy (1996), the Jim Carrey comedy that was in the headlines before it even hit the screen. By starring in the film, Carrey received more money for one project than any actor had before, creating a unique sense of expectation. Fresh off a string of mega-hits, including Dumb and Dumber (1994), The Mask (1994) and the Ace Ventura films (1994, 1995), his brand—as it were—was seemingly as unimpeachable as his popularity. For a cool $20 million, audiences were prepared for peak Carrey, the best that money could buy. What they got was something else entirely. Blame unfair expectations, blame capitalism—either way, The Cable Guy’s dark moods and satirical humor represented a complete turnaround from Carrey’s previous goofball fare. America was unamused, and the film was quickly deemed a flop.

But The Cable Guy wasn’t a flop, at least not in the traditional sense. The film more than doubled its $47 million budget in the box office, and though reviews were certainly mixed, it wasn’t without its champions. Critic J. Hoberman included it in his top ten that year, and Jonathan Rosenbaum called it Carrey’s most ambitious film to date. Nevertheless, The Cable Guy came to represent a flop, a blaring example of Hollywood’s lack of judgement. So it’s hard to tell when, exactly, people started to love it. Years removed from the shadow of Carrey’s paycheck—these days, most people won’t blink at an actor earning $20 million—and rising with a media culture it eerily presaged, The Cable Guy escaped obscurity and cemented a spot as one of the greatest and most misunderstood comedies of the ‘90s.

In defense of the audience, they never stood a chance. Part of the film’s power lies in director Ben Stiller’s utter deconstruction of Carrey’s persona, and the actor himself played an active role in subverting his own stardom. His manic persona, cartoonish and therefore harmless in previous his previous hits, takes a decidedly dark turn in The Cable Guy, where his famously rubber face became fixed in a leering, sadistic glare. His gift for physical comedy, the primary focal point of his earlier roles, appear in just a single scene, where he pummels a helpless Owen Wilson in a public men’s room, kicking him in the gut and shoving a hand dryer down his mouth. Suddenly, the deranged and potentially dangerous energy that lurked beneath his persona was out in full force. He was scary and funny at the exact same time.

As such, he couldn’t really be the center of the film. Matthew Broderick, a winning straight man, takes the lead as Steve Kovacs, a nebbish Joe Schmoe licking his wounds after being dumped by his girlfriend, Robin (Leslie Mann). The story begins with him moving out of their shared apartment and into a new one-bedroom, and it’s here that he meets the title character (Carrey), who shows up to install his cable and quickly insert himself into his life.

Introducing himself as Chip Douglas, the maladjusted cable guy has an intense lisp and an even more intense obsession with Steven, and Carrey plays the character as a clingy oddball willing to do anything—anything—for friendship. Soon, his presence in Steven’s life morphs from mildly annoying to majorly distressing and potentially dangerous. As a black comedy loosely modeled on the campy eroticism of Fatal Attraction and nuisance comedies like What About Bob?, The Cable Guy paints a feverish and vaguely homoerotic picture of male bonding. Everything here is pitched darker than normal, and Carrey, rarely one to half-ass a performance, is more than game to steer the film in the most demented direction possible.

That’s enough to sink your teeth into, but like the best of Stiller’s directorial efforts, The Cable Guy proves a salient satire, taking umbrage with media-obsessed culture and an entire generation bathed in the warm glow of the boob tube. The name Chip Douglas is eventually revealed to be one of many aliases the character borrows from TV sitcoms, and the pearls of wisdom he gives Steven are cribbed from daytime talk shows. He compares everything that happens in his life to something that’s happened on TV, and it becomes increasingly clear that he might have trouble differentiating between the two. His persona is reflected in the lives of mid-‘90s cable junkies, obsessed as they were with televisual imagery represented in everything from Star Trek to the O.J. Simpson trial, referenced here in a funny subplot involving a former child star, played by Stiller, who’s on trial for killing his twin brother. And lest the film seem dated, Carrey delivers a big speech that completely predicts the interconnectivity of contemporary media consumption, promising that one day one day, “you can play Mortal Kombat with your friend in Vietnam.”

That the character’s insane ramblings double as prophetic declarations speaks to the wry intelligence that came packaged with The Cable Guy, a summer comedy that promised a zany Carrey and little else. It remains Stiller’s most determined film to date, more intelligent and incisive than his satires of the fashion industry (Zoolander) and Hollywood egos (Tropic Thunder). The film’s climax, however, leaves much to be desired. Rather than track Chip’s persona to its wildest conclusions, Stiller settles on a conventional ending that feels like something out of a second-rate thriller. Doubling down on his satirical themes, he also delivers a parting message that’s more didactic than insightful; ultimately, its greatest perceptions lie in the interpersonal obstacles of maneuvering an unwanted friendship, particularly the kind between two heterosexual adult males. As a deranged comedy of manners tailor-made for the sarcastic sensibilities of Generation X, the film’s middle finger is ultimately aimed at post-Reagan conventionalism, and the daring notion that money—not even $20 million—can’t buy everything.

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