“Osmosis Jones”

Gross-out kings Peter and Bobby Farrelly return with a curiously tame movie about -- good eating habits!

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"Osmosis Jones"

The ingredients of comedy, after millennia of attempts by practitioners of theater, film, standup and sitcom, remain stubbornly unclear and undependable. In the first feature movie by gross-out provocateurs Bobby and Peter Farrelly, “Dumb & Dumber,” who could have predicted that the airborne ears of a van decked out as a puppy, flopping up and down as the truck came over a rise in the road, would become an ineffable and blithe image? Or that, two movies later, that a crudely set up, wholly improbable sight gag involving semen and a beautiful woman’s hairdo would became a concussive comic moment?

Not even the Farrellys understand this recipe themselves. After the serene “Dumb & Dumber,” the grody but uplifting “Kingpin,” and the uproarious sensation that was “There’s Something About Mary,” they have stumbled — through one more they wrote and directed together, “Me, Myself & Irene,” and two others they’ve written and produced, “Say It Isn’t So” and “Outside Providence.” All are typically blunt and intermittently funny, but each lacks some central life-force. It’s possible that the Farrellys’ next feature film. “Shallow Hal,” will cauterize our funny bones again; it stars Jack Black as a womanizer who suddenly is able to see the inner beauty of women, rather than just their bods.

Which sounds a lot like “Shrek.” It’s possible that now, having learned to expect the unexpected — the crude, the outrageous, the out of bounds — we have in effect vaccinated ourselves against the Farrellys’ humor.

In the context of the pair’s bizarre subjects (bowling, incest … ), “Osmosis Jones” is the weirdest one yet: health. The movie’s direct filmic and thematic predecessor is neither “Porky’s” nor “Caddyshack” but rather “Mr. Nutrient” or “Algernon the Amino Acid” or any one of a hundred 1950s educational films explaining how bodily functions work, with little food droplets, in rudimentary animation, going down a figure’s esophagus and the vitamins and such then spreading throughout the body. That, no more and no less, is the theme of “Osmosis Jones.”

The movie is tricked up by a structure that alternates animation and live-action. The latter, done with typical Farrelly scabrousness but totaling only about one-third of the actual screen time, stars Bill Murray as a slovenly zoo keeper who introduces a dangerous disease into his system, to the dismay of his doting young daughter. The animated part — done Disney-style, not CGI, and overseen by veteran animators Piet Kroon and Tom Sito — shows the body fighting off the disease, with the title character, voiced by Chris Rock, a white blood cell leading the charge.

The conceit of the animated section is that the inside of Bill Murray is a bustling metropolis called “Frank,” with a population of trillions of individual cells and a lot of big-city problems, like a corrupt mayor (William Shatner) who encourages Frank to eat fried chicken as a way of placating the population, long-term consequences be damned. He won’t tell the population what it needs to hear: that Frank needs exercise and a better diet. Osmosis Jones is the typical action-movie cliché: the hot-headed cop who goes off half-cocked, frustrating his superiors and testing the patience of his friends, partners and, of course, love interest. His clotted but grudgingly respectful partner is Drix, a big cold capsule voiced by Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce. The villain, voiced by Laurence Fishburne, is some anthrax-like virus or disease (the movie’s not really rigorous, pathologically speaking) known as Thrax.

From this you’d expect another level or two of perversity, but “Osmosis Jones” remains stubbornly one-dimensional. The gags are so resoundingly and innocently pre-adolescent that it’s really hard to see how the film managed a PG rating. As such, it is in the end the pair’s most unsatisfying movie yet. What gave “Dumb & Dumber” and particularly “There’s Something About Mary” their charm is the themes lying beneath them. Themes are not often considered in films whose primary plot points involve amputations, genital mutilation, laxatives and vomit. But “Dumb & Dumber” was about something, and something as giddy and blithe as those ears bouncing on Jeff Daniels’ truck — the truth that god does indeed smile on the idiot.

And what lifts “Mary” into the pantheon of American humor was not the Cameron Diaz semen-in-the-hair scene, nor what happened to Ben Stiller when he zipped up his pants too quickly. It was instead the film’s uncompromising dissection of a potent phenomenon: The obsession a certain species of female beauty engenders in certain males. The movie, which seemed to be a crude romp, is instead very serious: It examined the various ways in which raging desires works itself on the male psyche, and the indignities women are correspondingly subjected to. There was Ben Stiller, the galumphy, earnest suitor; Lee Evans, the desperate clown; Matt Dillon, the scumbag; and then, finally and most painfully, Chris Elliott, the ultracreep, literally pustuled with desire. No feminist polemic has ever demonstrated this dynamic so graphically.

“Osmosis Jones” lacks any such subtext. It really is just a glorified film strip. The live-action parts, with Murray and Chris Elliot, are classically Farrellyan: garish colors, brightly lit, lots of footage of animal dung and foul food and punchlines that involve both. But the moral is disappointingly mundane: The little girl, who just wanted her dad to be less of a pig, was right. And the animated sections are there merely to demonstrate, with slightly more general humor, that she has a point. We see bad food tumbling into the stomach, where white blood cells like Rock stand in an airline terminal-like waiting area. We see the throat, the tonsils, the esophagus, the bowels….

Rock’s pretty funny, but the loner-cop send-up goes nowhere. Besides a quick “Matrix” spoof, there’s little here for film fans, either. Everything happens just as you expect it to. Murray contracts some strange disease; Jones is the only white blood cell who can see the dire consequences. The love interest begins to doubt our hero. Murray eventually falls into a coma until he’s cured by Jones. The cop gets the girl, he’s back on the force, and Bill Murray promises to mend his ways. It’s enough to induce fans of the Farrelly Brothers to do the same.

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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