Dumb and somewhat less dumb: "There's Something About Mary"

Review: In "There's Something About Mary," the Farrelly Brothers have moved beyond fart jokes

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In her new biography of Helen Keller, Dorothy Herrmann says that the jokes we've all heard (and told) about her subject are a sign of "people's fears about the prospect of their own disability." That's a good humanist speaking, and a naive one. The truth is that there's nothing funnier than what we shouldn't laugh at. If your standards demand good taste and sophisticated wit, then you'll find much in "There's Something About Mary" that you shouldn't laugh at. The rest of you should have a pretty good time.

The Farrelly Brothers, Peter and Bobby, have moved beyond the fart, pee-pee and ca-ca jokes that made "Dumb & Dumber" so exuberantly grubby. These are the sort of guys for whom new territory means jokes about retards, the handicapped and small animals being mistreated, plus gags about people in excruciating — and embarrassing — pain. There's nothing nice about laughing at a guy on crutches trying to pick up his car keys.

I know that cold description makes the movie sound sick, and even cruel. Sick yes, but the Farrellys are as good-natured as two shameless gagsters can be. Ben Stiller said recently that their talent lies in relaxing the actors enough to do stuff they wouldn't ordinarily do. It was only months later, Stiller said, when he saw a preview of the movie, that he couldn't believe his own on-screen antics. The Farrellys trade on that disbelief — they want to make you helpless with laughter as your jaw is plummeting to the floor.

In "There's Something About Mary," they succeed about three-quarters of the time. They try to blend their dirty little kids' humor with a genuine romantic comedy. The problem is that giving us an emotional investment in the characters isn't their strong suit, and for stretches between their trademark set pieces, "There's Something About Mary" feels slack and a bit pedestrian. The type of comedy the Farrellys love requires dizzy, pell-mell pacing. If "There's Something About Mary" were tightened up by about 20 minutes, it would be much funnier.

One look at Mary is enough to explain the "Something" of the title because Cameron Diaz is knee-weakeningly beautiful. Mary is — not surprisingly — a girl who makes almost every guy who lays eyes on her sick with love. The joke of the movie is that she attracts more creeps, psychos and stalkers than nice normal guys. In the latter category is Ted (Stiller), who, when we first see him in the movie's opening section, is a shaggy-haired high school geek with a mouth full of dental work. He stands up for Mary's retarded brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown), so she asks him to the prom. The evening makes the prom scene in "Carrie" look like a dream date. Ted and Mary never make it to the dance because of a humiliating accident. (The accident isn't nearly as funny as the aftermath -- an extended piece of unbelievable tastelessness that's a toilet joke variation on the stateroom sequence from "A Night at the Opera.") Ted spends the next 13 years dreaming about her and finally hires a sleazy private eye named Healy (Matt Dillon) to track her down in Miami. Healy sees Mary, decides he wants her for himself and tells Ted she's becomes a fat, wheelchair-bound unwed mother on her way to Japan as a mail-order bride. When Ted discovers Healy is lying he heads to Miami to win Mary's heart.

That's a classic romantic comedy setup, and you expect the movie to turn into a competition between Healy and Ted, with each trying to outdo the other. And that is what happens, sort of, but the movie meanders a tad too much getting there. (I could have done with a lot less of Chris Elliott as Ted's buddy who keeps breaking out in an ever grosser case of hives.) "There's Something About Mary" seems stuck at times between the Farrellys' determination to stick to their anarchic aesthetic and their desire to branch out. When they hit their stride, though — as they do in almost every scene between Stiller and Diaz — the movie is a sick pleasure.

A Farrelly Brothers outing is dead in the water if the actors aren't game, and the group assembled here behave as if they were kids given the chance to sneak into a cathedral before mass and hide whoopie cushions under the kneelers. Among the jokers here are Lin Shaye as Diaz's neighbor, sporting a tan to make George Hamilton look pale and the American Cancer Society blanch; Keith David as Diaz's stepfather; Lee Evans as her friend, a handicapped British architect; and Brown as her, uh, "special" brother, who's an uninhibited hoot in every scene. The eternally delightful Jonathan Richman -- yep, that Jonathan Richman -- and drummer Tommy Larkins turn up throughout the movie as a pair of strolling troubadours (they're used in the same way as Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye were in "Cat Ballou"), and I could feel myself breaking into a grin whenever they showed up.

As Healy, Dillon -- sporting a mustache that looks like it was picked out of a can of anchovies and a set of choppers that Jim Carrey's "The Mask" might have envied -- looks like something out of a grindhouse version of Looney Tunes. For a comic actor who made his name doing edgy material that didn't bother to hide its satirical hostility, Stiller has turned out to be a whiz at playing the nice guy who can't catch a break. In the early scenes, he has the goofy, braces-laden grin of a born patsy. (The Farrellys have him flash it while he's gazing at a pair of lovebirds nestling in a tree and "Close to You" plays on the soundtrack -- accompanied by the sound of Ted taking a pee.) Ted is set up as a guy whose niceness and honesty get him into trouble every time (especially in a great police interrogation sequence), and Stiller keeps scoring laughs off that concept.

Judging from some of the stuff she's called on to do here, Diaz belongs on the short list for "Good Sport of the Year." (Let's just say you'll never think of hair gel the same way again.) She's a stunner who seems happy to be thought of as one of the guys. The key to why Diaz is so good in outrageous comedy (not just here but in "The Mask" and "A Life Less Ordinary") is the crazed gleam that sneaks into her eyes, her big toothy smile and the manic trill you can sometimes hear in her voice. In a cover story in the new Harper's Bazaar, Chris Mundy says that Diaz gets off fairly easy in "There's Something About Mary," because she's put on the movie's "admittedly low pedestal." I disagree. To borrow an old Steve Martin line, I think the Farrellys believe a woman should be put on a pedestal -- high enough that you can look up her dress. Her performance here suggests that Diaz would greet that prospect with a giggle.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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