By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
It's nice to have Jim Carrey back.
He has been around, somberly reaching for thespian respect, toying with kiddie animation and making the most of alleged comedies like Fun With Dick and Jane. But the Jim Carrey that fans love — the dervish with the Play-Doh face capable of anything wacky at any time — has been on hiatus since Bruce Almighty more than five years ago.
Yes Man is Carrey's return to form, somewhat matured but still funny. It's a comedy of compulsive behavior skirting a bit too close to Liar, Liar to be considered original. But if that's the comfort zone that Carrey's steamroller style requires to get back on track, so be it.
Carrey plays Carl Allen, a bank loan officer whose entire existence is based upon saying no to applicants, friends, whomever. That's a sad situation, with a broken marriage, stunted career and antisocial life to show for it. Encountering an old friend (John Michael Higgins) touting an odd self-help encounter group changes everything.
The group espouses the power of saying yes to everything, led by a pompous guru (Terence Stamp) who breaks down Carl's resistance. The setup isn't as believable as the child's magical wish that made Carrey hilariously honest in Liar, Liar — Carl could call off this compulsion anytime — but it's serviceable.
Eventually, Carl learns that saying yes to everything he avoided before has benefits, especially meeting free-spirited Allison (Zooey Deschanel, the go-to girl for handling wackos after Elf). Their evolving relationship gives Yes Man a sweet center, enabling Carrey to indulge his desire to be more than a clown.
Director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, The Break-Up) keeps the jokes moving at an agreeable pace, even when the screenplay resorts to such tired ideas as an elderly woman (Fionnula Flanagan) asking Carl for sex, knowing he won't resist. That's an Adam Sandler-style gag that's beneath Carrey.
Then again, a couple of scenes have that old Carrey zing: a drunken encounter with a bar bully, coaxing a suicide jumper (Luis Guzman) off a ledge while singing a Third Eye Blind song, strumming newly learned guitar chords. Of course, Carl takes his yes obsession too far, and the eventual lesson that "maybe" can also be a fine choice is a wan way to wrap up a movie.
But Yes Man is a pleasant diversion for viewers disinterested with the heavy stuff Hollywood dishes out during awards season. It's also a decent reminder of why Carrey is a star in the first place, after he has worked so diligently to escape that niche. Make us laugh once in a while and he can do whatever else he wishes.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com.