Single White Female (1992) is a thriller directed by Barbet Schroeder. It stars Bridget Fonda as the eponymous young women looking for a roommate after splitting with her fiancee. She is unlucky enough to end up with Hedy, a very needy and disturbed roommate played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. It’s a fairly engaging thriller that stands out from a crop of similar guilty pleasures such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (also released in 1992).
What makes Single White Female (SWF) so great is that it is directed stylishly by Schroeder; he and the cast completely give themselves over to the production. It moves in stages that are engaging and compelling – except for a few moments when the camera lingers on Leigh’s dissatisfaction, her frustration at being separated from Fonda’s character Allie, you know only what Allie knows, allowing Hedy’s demented nature to unspool towards its psychotic ends. The apartment they inhabit is evocative of every aging beauty of a New York apartment from the 80’s and early 90’s. Allie’s travails in finding work are every twenty-something’s travails, and the promise of a new friendship is as alluring as cubic zirconia to those of us who don’t know better.
However, what makes the film memorable are the chilling flashes of melodrama – that amazing moment when Hedy appears at the top of the stairs after her makeover, dressed in Allie’s style and sporting an identical haircut, or when she seduces Allie’s fiancee by pretending to be Hedy and then impaling him with a high heel stiletto to the eye. The film alternates between these high production nods (it even evokes Ingmar Bergman‘s Persona at one point) and crass pleasures to make you shudder, to permit the broad strokes ludicrousness in which it wallows.
The Cable Guy (1996) might be the most infamous movie Jim Carrey ever made. Carrey plays ‘Chip’ Douglas, a more than eccentric cable service employee who becomes fixated with Matthew Broderick’s innocuous everyman, Steven. Like SWF, The Cable Guy descends into a ludicrous high stakes thriller with Steven’s life as its hostage. While SWF has stretches of normalcy, any hope of attaining this in The Cable Guy is shattered by Carrey’s heightened, bizzare portrayal of Chip. Almost every scene features Broderick or another ‘normal’ actor just staring, slack jawed as Carrey takes the oddness of his performance further and further without bothering to ramp up. Even Jack Black, who plays Steven’s friend, can’t help but stand frozen and stare as Carrey seems to be racing on all cylinders on a planet all his own. This was of course before Jack Black became Jack Black; perhaps it was watching Carrey’s performance that gave him permission to release his inner mania.
Whatever the reason, viewing this film is like watching a one man acting train wreck. The performance is fueled by super stardom, a lack of perspective or sense, and twenty million dollars (Carrey’s incredible salary for starring in this very strange film). It also boasts mesmerizing scenes such as when Carrey joins a simple game of pickup basketball at a community gym and ends up shattering the glass backboard after leaping off Jack Black’s back, or when Carrey insists that he and Broderick fight in the arena at Medieval Times like Kirk and Spock from a vintage Star Trek episode.
Despite the fact that SWF might turn its nose up at The Cable Guy, they have many things in common. If you were looking for a fun double bill at home one evening, you could do much worse than this pairing. Both feature sympathetic everyday protagonists who befriend very troubled antagonists with deep attachment issues. Both protagonists are estranged from their romantic partners and although they should know better, allow these chaotic psyches into their lives as if giving demons permission to cross the threshold in an ancient folktale. The extent to which their lives become manipulated, twisted, and destroyed gives us delight while providing just enough identification to deny culpability. The psychological profiles of the antagonists are highly problematic as they demonize mental illness and ascribe a nineties identification with being ‘normal’ that might have eroded in the intervening twenty odd years. However, it’s seductive to throw judgment and conscience out the window, stuff our mouths with popcorn, and enjoy the ride.
Whereas The Cable Guy tries to wrap its movie up in some sort of unfocused statement about the impact of media on the individual (no doubt, director Ben Stiller’s doing – this was the period fresh off his Reality Bites), SWF ultimately succeeds because it never pretends to anything more than what it is: the cinematic equivalent of a penny dreadful with style and flourish thrown in. It unashamedly takes its place in a genre that includes such trashy delights as Fatal Attraction and perhaps even Basic Instinct.
What would be really fun is if they used the technology available to us and swapped around the antagonists. It might be thrilling to cut together a movie where Bridget Fonda must put up with her new roommate played by Jim Carrey who insists on enunciating every single sentence in an odd manner with a faraway look and unhinged jaw as if he’s talking to ghosts. It might be an improvement to see Matthew Broderick square off against Jennifer Jason Leigh in the sandy arena at Medieval Times. In any case, if you’re looking for a new roommate or are feeling lonely for companionship, I’d recommend casually watching these two nineties gems first.