There are about three different comedies shuttling around uncomfortably inside the loose frame of Yes Man, and all of them probably would have been more successful on their own. It starts as a high-concept, "what if...?" comedy straight from the Liar, Liar playbook, morphs for a while into an overly twee "opposites attract" kind of romance, and ends with a mess of self-help platitudes and clincher scenes that seem airlifted in from other movies. The narrative meandering is matched by an inconsistent, overly vulgar comedic tone, so while scene by scene it can be funny, it all starts to feel pointless long before Yes Man reaches the end.
Surprisingly, Jim Carrey isn't at the root of the problem. For a comedian whose most successful role of the decade was sullen Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Carrey's rubber face and manic energy are welcome here, picking up the slack in scenes where the writing is lacking. He even starts off a little like Joel, playing bank loan agent Carl, who's so depressed over his divorce three years that he still stays home and watches 300 rather than getting out in the world. It doesn't help that his only social options are his over-enthusiastic, geeky boss Norman (Rhys Darby), smugly engaged Peter (Bradley Cooper) and Lucy (Sasha Alexander), and the entirely personality-free Danny Masterson.
But somehow an old friend talks Carl into joining him at a "Yes Man" self-help conference, where nutty New Age guru Terrence (Terrence Stamp, hilarious) admonishes him to start saying "yes" to every single question. Immediately after Carl says yes to a homeless man's request to drive him into a park, which kicks off a chain of events that leads Carl to Allison (Zooey Deschanel), a standard-issue free spirit who rides a scooter and sings in a concept art band called Munchausen by Proxy. As Carl keeps saying yes to everything else, from throwing Lucy a bridal shower to taking Korean lessons, life leads him repeatedly back to Allison, and they start up a strange, age-inappropriate romance.
The pickles that Carl gets himself into as a "yes man" range from truly funny, like Norman's Harry Potter party, to downright icky, like his tryst with his elderly neighbor (You know those randy old lady jokes! They never get old!) Even some of the scenes that are more inspired, like a bar fight or Carl's unexpected friendship with a Korean store clerk, go on so long that they drain the humor out of the setup. It's a problem that applies to the movie as a whole: great concept, but no one has any idea what to do with it once they've gotten there.
Screenwriters Nicholas Stoller (having done such a better job on Forgetting Sarah Marshall), Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel must have known going in that the concept of Yes Man provides a serious narrative problem. If saying yes to everything automatically makes Carl's life better, where's the conflict? For about an hour and a half the movie progresses as if none of this crossed their minds, with Carl and Allison frolicking in their romance and all of Carl's customers leaving his desk with their loans happily in hand. Because this was made before "subprime mortgage" became a bad word, the money issues are left alone as conflict, and instead Homeland Security-- no kidding-- comes along to play bad guy and break up the happy couple. The issues at hand are genuine, with Allison asking Carl, if he says "yes" to everything, how can she know what he really wants or needs? But it's all handled in such a rushed way that it never fits into the overall story, and the movie can only answer its own questions in a fit of aphorisms and self-help talk near the end.
Yes Man wins points for not being excessively crude or mean, even though several swear words and "naughty" scenes seem mostly inserted to get the PG-13 rating that teenage boys will want to see. A few tweaks could have made this a gentler, PG, family-targeted movie, and I think it would have been better for it. As it is Yes Man is reaching to be both raunchy boy humor and broad-appeal Jim Carrey movie, both making fun of self-help gurus and accepting their teachings as fact, and generally throwing every kind of joke at the wall to see what sticks. Some of it does, more of it doesn't, and the whole jumbled production suffers from the lack of coherent vision.