Americans in the economic trough this holiday season will find fantasy solutions to their money woes in the weekend's two big new movies. Wouldn't it be nice if Jim Carrey were your local bank officer, who smilingly approved every loan, even if your need were bizarre and your collateral nonexistent? Wouldn't your soul be soothed if Will Smith were a Treasury agent who gave you a six-month extension on the pile you owe the IRS? You needn't be a financial tycoon to get a home- or pension-saving Christmas gift not when these two stars are playing Santa.
The weekend face-off sets the top comedy star of the '90s against the top action and drama star of the last decade. Industry handicappers are predicting that Carrey, with a familiar role in an easy-to-sell story, will score a box office win over Smith, whose movie's central and unrevealable plot twists make it a challenge to describe. (They're saying it could be Smith's first film since the 2001 Ali not to break $100 million domestic.) But both films play to their stars' acting strengths, which means that you will probably laugh along with Yes Man, and in Seven Pounds, if you have a soft spot for noble sacrifice, you will cry. (See TIME's top 10 movies of 2008.)
The scenarios for Yes Man, the Carrey comedy, and Seven Pounds, the Smith drama, could have emerged from the same screenwriting class. Premise: An ordinary man who's lost his wife has become remote from his family and friends. To resolve his ennui, he determines to become a do-gooder Carrey's Carl Allen by answering in the affirmative to every vagrant request, Smith's Ben Thomas by choosing seven strangers whose lives he can drastically improve and in the process he finds a new woman to give him hope or assuage his guilt.
Jim Carrey: Yes Man
We couldn't summarize Yes Man better than Carrey did on The Tonight Show on Tuesday, when he purported to fall asleep and offered this précis between snores: "Carl Allen is a guy who doesn't engage in life. Then he decides to say yes to everything, no matter how silly or deranged it is. Critics are calling it a panacea for our dark times we're living in." In a little swipe at the competition, Carrey said of Yes Man, "It's the only movie this weekend where nobody dies in the end."
When we meet him, Carl is living by the Alcoholics Anonymous mantra that "no" is a complete sentence. He gamely deflects every dinner invitation by inventing outlandish excuses about how busy he is. At the bank, he automatically rejects every loan application. He can rouse himself to passion only when watching a Saw movie in his cocoon of a home, cheering on the man who has to amputate his foot: "Oh, come on, you're halfway through, cut it off already."
In other Carrey movies, the star needed magical or divine intervention to change his ways: a boy's wish that his dad will tell the truth for 24 hours in Liar Liar and, in Bruce Almighty, God's command that he try being omnipotent in order to learn how tough it is to be in charge of the universe. This time it's just an excitable friend (John Michael Higgins) who drags Carl to one of those personal-help messiahs who pock the California mindscape. The word from this shock-haired swami (Terence Stamp) is "Yes." By saying yes to every chance that comes your way a homeless man's plea for your money, a street peddler's flier for a band concert, a loan request from any indigent who wanders into the bank you will open yourself to unexpected possibilities in life and love. You may also end up broke, bereft and unemployed, but that's a different movie. (For one: It's a Wonderful Life, or most of it.)