For those who thought Dumb and Dumber signaled the end of the world as we know it, my advice to you is duck and cover. Comedy avatars Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the odium savants who perpetrated what some might consider Jim Carrey's Hamlet (the geniuses from South Park are currently set to do the prequel)--as well as its follow-up, the mondo bowl-a-rama Kingpin, with Woody Harrelson as a one-armed bowler and Randy Quaid as an Amish cretin--now turn their consummate attentions to the romantic comedy with There's Something About Mary.
But with Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in the leads, exactly how wrong could they go?
For the record, this winsome fable harvests its gentle humor from the likes of human excrement, misplaced semen, oral-genital farce, near castration, serial killers, cripples, retarded children, exploding pets, and runny, festering boils. It is also--and here's the kicker--hysterically funny. Corrosively, virulently funny--a new military-grade strain of comedy that can peel paint and produce spontaneous bleeding from the eyes.
It largely accomplishes this through sheer hyperbole. Case in point: Anyone can attempt your routine dick-caught-in-a-zipper joke--but not everyone can stretch it out to 10 minutes; involve a prom date's parents, the police, the fire department, and emergency paramedics; and go to the trouble of building a rubber prosthetic so they can actually show you the money shot. The Brothers Farrelly don't just push the envelope: They lick it, get their tongues stuck in the flap, and are mangled through a letter-sorting machine. It does not thrill me to have to tell you this.
The film starts from a workable premise: A guy hires a skip tracer to find his fantasy girl from high school; by Act Two, the skip tracer has become the other guy. Stiller, who already looks like he spent much of his own adolescence nailed up by the ears, portrays his high school self with a mouthful of razor ribbon and grounds the outlandishness in the same sort of deadpan hysteria he did in Flirting With Disaster. (To be fair, the litany of atrocities he faces is not all that different from the pathology on parade in Neil LaBute's upcoming Your Friends and Neighbors or the heroin slapstick of Permanent Midnight, his other summer bookends.)
Cameron Diaz is typically dazzling as the perfect woman--kind to small dogs, strangers, and all sorts of human frailty. She repeatedly proclaims Harold and Maude to be one of the great love stories of our time. Diaz has always been a good sport--as she has shown by singing in My Best Friend's Wedding and dancing in A Life Less Ordinary. But here she goes for a personal best, doing things to that million-dollar model's countenance I still shudder to think about. And Matt Dillon as the private dick, wearing a gelatinous pencil-thin mustache and fake teeth, spends much of his time reinventing himself as Diaz's perfect suitor, reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (another underrated comedy--albeit one that forgoes its ingenue spreading ejaculate in her hair).
Markie Post and Keith David shine as Diaz's unlikely parents, as do Chris Elliott and British comic Lee Evans as various rivals. Even troubadour Jonathan Richman gets with the program, trotting the eponymous ballad through his many signature styles, from salsa-lite to crunch guitar, and looking like Nat "King" Cole and Stubby Kaye wandering through Cat Ballou. (He's good enough to take a bullet in the closing credits.)
Revolving between Florida and their native Providence, Mary appears to be the most autobiographical of the Farrellys' trilogy--a sobering thought in itself. It's also the first comedy in a while where the "No animals were harmed during the making of this film" qualifier is there for a reason. And for all I know, it may well be their stylistic homage to Aristophanes and the robust Old Comedy of fifth century B.C. Athens, whose Lysistrata, as we'll remember, is basically a Marx Brothers comedy about a bunch of guys with erections.
No doubt each succeeding comic generation is at some point labeled barbarians at the gates: Monty Python, patrician architects Michael O'Donoghue and Doug Kenney of the National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live school, the Airplane triumvirate. Even kindly old Neil Simon, in Norman Mailer's introduction to The Deer Park, is blamed for the death of the theater. Still, it's difficult to sanction this sort of thing.
Somewhere well before the end, as Stiller confronts Dillon in his Miami apartment, an enormous pile of apparently human feces sits quite visibly in the corner. It serves no purpose, no one ever refers to it--Stiller doesn't even manage to step in it as he storms out. It's just there. And suddenly (like Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects), this antic breathlessness you've been battling nonstop from the beginning is gone. The gyroscope steadies, equilibrium is regained, and the conscience you've been holding underwater like a beachball for two-thirds of the movie resurfaces, reminding you succinctly you've been laughing at things you thought you outgrew in grade school.
You may not see a funnier movie this year. Or one that will make you feel worse.
There's Something About Mary.
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Written by the Farrellys, Ed Decter, and John J. Strauss. Starring Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, Matt Dillon, and Chris Elliott. Opens Friday.
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