There’s Something About Mary

fhd998SAM_Cameron_Diaz_002There’s Something About Mary is crude, vulgar, reprehensible, and probably a threat to the American way of life — in a word, hilarious. Directed by Rhode Island brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly, the disreputable auteurs who made Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, the movie pours two unstable elements into the same flask: romantic comedy and gross-out humor. The Farrellys’ next genre should be the tearjerker — I’d love to see what they’d do with The Horse Whisperer. (Think of the poignant drama as Kristin Scott Thomas in her high heels slips on cow flop…)

Cameron Diaz is Mary, the Farrellys’ (and many other guys’) ideal woman: a looker who’s compassionate, down to earth, and looking for “a paunchy guy who likes golf and beer.” She hasn’t had much luck holding onto a guy, though, and in the film’s 1985 opening sequence we learn why: Her brother Warren (W. Earl Brown) is retarded¹ and tends to scare people away. For Mary, this is just as well: If a guy can’t deal with Warren, she doesn’t want to deal with the guy.

One guy who gets along with Mary and Warren is Ted (Ben Stiller), a pimply dweeb with braces in 1985. Touched by Ted’s well-meaning (if ineffectual) defense of Warren against a bully, Mary asks him to the prom — which leads to an escalating series of mishaps, some of which haven’t been revealed in the trailer, so I won’t spoil them. Cut to 1998: Ted, now a freelance writer, is still haunted by the memory of Mary (and the events of the aborted prom night). He won’t be able to get over her until he finds out what she’s doing now, so he hires sleazo private eye Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to track her down in Miami. Pat, who is paunchy and likes beer, takes one look at Mary and decides to take up golf.

The movie is shrewdly cast. If Ben Stiller hadn’t proved in Flirting with Disaster that he’s willing to look like a hapless dork, he certainly proves it here. Hardly a scene goes by that he’s not beaten, humiliated, and generally degraded — he’s a great sport, like Woody Harrelson in the better scenes in Kingpin (a much less successful Farrelly effort). Matt Dillon demolishes what’s left of his teen-idol image from the ’80’s; he spends half the movie in ugly fake choppers. His performance is even funnier if you caught Wild Things, where he played another kind of sap in the middle of a Miami triangle. Diaz, as always, is a fresh and stabilizing presence; her beauty is an effective counterpoint to all the grossness.

But if There’s Something About Mary is a hit — and it deserves to be — W. Earl Brown may become an unlikely star. Brown has been around the margins of other movies, most memorably as Kenny, Courteney Cox’s doomed cameraman in Scream, but here, convincingly playing the cheerful (and sometimes violent) Warren, he breaks out and steals the movie. One Warren scene near the beginning — it involves Ted and a baseball — made me laugh so hard I got lightheaded. Brown makes you laugh with Warren, not at him, and the humor in his character comes from how others react to him (and what he does to them). It’s not long before he wins the audience over completely; he’s the best movie hero of the summer.

A movie like this is difficult to review, because you have to suggest how funny it is without actually explaining why (and thus spoiling the jokes). There’s a vicious little dog, as you’ve seen in the ads, but the Farrellys wisely don’t overwork him — and the jokes always go a step or two further than what you saw in the trailer. There’s a certain heartlessness in the Farrellys’ approach to gross-out humor, but this time there’s some heart, too. When Mary is shown working with retarded people like her brother, the scene is more natural and compassionate than you’d expect from a movie like this. In fact, in this comedy, it’s mostly the “normal” people who are ugly, stupid, and laughable. Very laughable.

The Farrellys stir up the two genres in the flask, and the result is its own genre: the gross-out romance. They already did the gross-out road movie and the gross-out sports movie; Mel Brooks has done the gross-out Western (Blazing Saddles) and Peter Jackson has done the gross-out horror movie (Dead Alive), so I suggest the Farrellys turn their comedic focus to the gross-out blockbuster. For example, wouldn’t Armageddon have been better if one of the heroes had farted in his space suit just once? Or if Godzilla had the runs? Or if Mulder had leaned in to kiss Scully, only to see a big, whistling booger hanging from her nose?

¹We would say “mentally challenged” now, but I apologetically leave the 1998 language as is, as reflective of the time.

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