Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Posted by Steven Lansingh
SIX MONTHS AGO I saw the Jim Carrey movie "Yes Man," in which he plays a man who has to say Yes to everything that comes his way. It sounded like an intriguing premise, a great "What if" scenario. "What ifs" are some of my favorite comedies: "Groundhog Day," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Mr. Destiny," and "Liar Liar" (a remarkably similarly themed Carrey movie in which he has to always tell the truth). There is something I love about bending life inside out and taking a look at who a person becomes when given different parameters than normal. How does changing the parameters or situations of one's life change the person you are becoming?
Reviews for "Yes Man" weren't great, but I pushed myself past my reluctance mostly on goodwill from "Liar Liar." (As much as I like "What if" movies, I am crushingly disappointed by ones that don't take full advantage of their scenario, because they ruin any future movie from tackling the same question.) As it turns out, it did fall short, at least for me. I didn't very much like the movie. But then at the end of the credits (and I have no idea why I was still watching the credits to the end) I saw that the film was based on a book. That struck me as odd, because the movie was such an overwhelmingly Hollywood cliche that I couldn't imagine that someone had written a book anything like the movie I had just seen. This week I finished reading Danny Wallace's "Yes Man," and am happy to report that I was right: it's nothing like the movie — it is infinitely better.
Most importantly, the "Yes Man" book is a true story. Danny Wallace wasn't sitting around trying to think of a good wacky scenario around which to write a comedy; he actually started living his life by saying Yes to every question, opportunity, and offer that came his way, and the comedy came on its own. Meaning, too, came on its own. The book is a rare feat of being devilishly comic and soul-expandingly thoughtful. And it's all true, including the too-perfect-for-words ending. I am still astonished at how something so funny, so well structured, and so unbelievably serendipitous gets turns into a mediocre gruel by Hollywood screenwriters. (I don't know why this still astonishes me, frankly; I suppose I'm an optimist at heart.) This highly original material really should have been filmed as is for a 14-episode run on the BBC if they wanted to do it properly.
So what are the differences? For starters, the Jim Carrey movie first lost me early on when his character, Carl, helps out an older lady in his building with some housework and she wants to reward him with some ... um ... afternoon delight. And he has to say yes. He has sex with a total stranger and thinks nothing of it. If the genders were reversed, and a woman agreed to sex with a person she'd just met, people would be up in arms about the scene, talking about sending the wrong message. With a guy it's just a nudge and a wink for some reason. Whereas in the book "Yes Man," an enormous plot point hinges on the question of whether or not he is going to sleep with a woman he fancies but is still in the beginning stages of a relationship with. Danny opens the book by wondering what he would have done had he been asked to murder someone, or something equally repulsive to him: would he pull the plug on the experiment? Did he really have to say yes to everything, or were there limits? Sex is one of those boundary-testing areas for him, as it would be for most people, so I became doubly mad at the movie for that scene when I found it cut against the very nature of much of what the book is saying.
Another enormous difference is the spirituality of the two pieces. In the movie, Carl is invited to attend a seminar by a spiritualist guru who tells people to say Yes to everything. This being a Hollywood movie, it eventually has to be revealed that the spiritual leader has something of a false front and in the end it doesn't really matter what path you take as long as you try hard at it. Typical mushiness. In the book, Danny is talking to a stranger on a bus about what's going on with his weekend, a party or event that he's been invited to but he thinks he'll decline, and the stranger tells him that maybe he should "say yes more." Just this simple phrase changes Danny's life. As he meets various people, including some conspiracy-theory types, a few Buddhist monks, a hypnotist, war protesters, and a fellow "Yes Man," he tries to figure out whether the words on the bus were just a happy accident or if there is a higher being taking human form who speaks into people's lives when they need it most. He wonders where wisdom comes from, whether there are really coincidences or if fate is at work, and if all we have in life is this moment or whether it is building toward something. He doesn't necessarily come to any conclusions except to admire everything amazing that life has to offer, but it's honest spiritual exploration nonetheless.
Then there is the love story. The Carrey movie has Zooey Deschanel as Allison, a woman he meets early on who pursues a Yes-centered free-spiritedness, just not in the regimented way that Carl does. He's attracted to her and pursues her, to the point that the movie is more or less about how to get the girl by saying yes. (And of course, it has the requisite: "Oh, my goodness, you've been pursuing me under false pretense, how dare you, I'll never speak to you again, no, wait, it's not that big of a deal, I guess it's OK after all" arc of every single high school movie about the cool guy taking a bet to win over the girl.) The book "Yes Man" also has a love story, but it is hidden away, tucked underneath his other adventures, and slowly gets teased out. The woman isn't even a main character in the book per se — it's more about Danny preparing himself to enter a relationship that isn't necessarily going to be easy and simple. In a way the book is like a working out his risk-taking muscles and working off his inhibition factor so that he's free to say Yes at the right time. The movie has an attitude of: Women are a puzzle to be figured out and if you find the right combination to open her heart then you can do it at will and she's yours. The book is more of a: Focus more on the person you want to be rather than on getting the person you want to have. Unlike every romantic comedy in the history of the world, Danny doesn't sit around thinking how he can get the girl to like him more and weasel his way into her affections, but just takes the opportunities as they come. It's a less manipulative and more collaborative statement on relationships.
There are a fair number of scenes that overlap: going out to a bar and having to say yes to the intimidating guy asking "Are you eyeballing my girlfriend?", saying yes to more and more projects at work and having that turn into respect and notice in the office, going to a party of someone who seems like a dweeb but then having a really good time. The movie, to its credit, does show a number of scenarios that makes you understand that saying yes only to the things that you forsee a good outcome to and saying no to the stuff you think you want to avoid is a kind of closed-off living that prevents you from opportunities to further good outcomes down the line. The movie at least doesn't kill off the main idea that saying Yes more (maybe not exclusively, like in the story) but more, is usually a good thing in living the one life you have to live. But the book has the advantage of being true. The weird coincidences that happen in the movie feel like someone just wrote them in that way so the story would come out right, but the book has just as many fortuitous meetings and odd happenstances that move Danny forward without the benefit of screenwriters. The book pushes you farther to consider the "What if" question more personally, more seriously.
The last difference I see is that in the movie, the seminar-based movement of people saying "Yes" is supposed to last into infinity. The people are just supposed to put that persona on and carry it out religiously with no end. In the book, it is clearly not a sustainable lifestyle. Danny makes himself a bet that he will continue to say "Yes" only through the end of the year. In that short time, largely thanks to pre-approved credit card applications that come in the mail that ask him if he would like to try a new kind of credit card (Yes!), Danny racks up enormous debt by buying a car, traveling the world, buying rounds of drinks, attending shows and festivals, etc. His money situation is helped by an upcoming promotion at work due to him taking on every project asked of him, but the new job starting in the new year also means that he won't be free to work on his own schedule, which is something that was essential to saying Yes to so many things. What the movie sets up as a mass movement, a permanent way of life for most participants, Danny is promoting as an experiment, a trial run of saying Yes to everything for a short time so that he won't be so scared about saying Yes more often in the future, when he gives himself back some discernment. The book is essentially saying: Your own sense discernment is very likely hamstrung by fear; what if you shook it up a little by going against your timid judgment every so often by agreeing to more opportunities, meeting people you wouldn't normally associate with, going places you wouldn't normally go, learning about subjects you assume aren't for you, to participate more? It's not Yes as a belief system, but Yes as an exercise in giving yourself more chances to exercise your belief system in greater extension in the world.