Review: 'There's Something About Mary,' and it's disgusting
Web posted on: Thursday, July 16, 1998 5:24:35 PM EDT
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- I'll readily admit that I screamed with laughter several times during Peter and Bobby Farrelly's new gross-out comedy, "There's Something About Mary," but, on a nationwide basis, there's an extremely uncomfortable catch to the kind of guffaws that these guys are generating. The Farrellys, who are also the team behind the far-more lamentable "Dumb and Dumber" and "Kingpin," are trying to shoot down the tenets of political correctness. And, boy, are they successful.
The whole P.C. trip has certainly gotten out of hand by now, and deserves to get its nose rubbed in some reality-based poop. But -- like the much more dangerously vicious "Starship Troopers" -- the average audience for something like this isn't going to be laughing at the blatantly misguided idea of making cruel jokes about retarded kids, handicapped people, homosexuals, and animal abuse. They'll simply be laughing at those targets. If this sounds like I'm saying that I'm smarter than lots of the people who'll be seeing "There's Something About Mary," you're damn right I am. Have you sat down and talked to a 14 year-old boy lately?
Introducing... Farrelly humor
So that's a huge disclaimer. However, if you're capable of playing along with this as a comically audacious nose-thumbing directed at modern American morals, you'll laugh a lot. Ben Stiller stars as Ted, who we see at the beginning of the film as a shy high school student with a mouthful of braces that make his face look like the grill of a 1957 Buick. Like everyone else in school, he's got a crush on a beautiful girl named Mary (Cameron Diaz, mostly eyes and legs.) One day, after he tries to rescue Mary's mentally-handicapped brother from a cruel bully, Mary asks Ted to the prom.
This fist sequence is surprisingly kind-hearted, until, that is, Ted puts on a bad tux and goes to Mary's house to pick her up for the prom. Then all hell breaks loose, and the Farrellys never look back. After being picked up in the living room and body-slammed a couple of times by Mary's irrationally rattled brother (the funniest thing in the movie; I thought I would choke), Ted goes to the bathroom, where he promptly gets his male organ caught in his zipper. The scene starts out as a funny, terribly painful embarrassment for Ted, but it goes on forever.
Suddenly, in the middle of all this, the Farrellys cut to a gruesome close-up of the actual mutilation, which is so unexpected and so cheap, I couldn't decide how I felt about it as a joke. Shock isn't always a prelude to laughter, and that turns out to be the movie's undoing in several later sequences. The actors try hard but don't really go anywhere, except purposefully into the toilet. The Farrellys' characters (theoretically, anyway) view boogers as Lays potato chips -- nobody can eat just one. You get so many jokes about stuff like dog crap and gobs of semen, they eventually don't have any shock value at all, and are only sporadically amusing.
Gags that make sense
The story then jumps ahead to the present day, where Stiller hires a sleazy insurance investigator named Pat Healy (played by Matt Dillon, in a richly inventive comic performance), to locate the long-lost Mary. When Healy finds her in Miami, he falls in love with her eyes and legs, and starts courting her himself. He listens in on her personal conversations with a huge microphone and starts creating a character that'll be more likely to win Mary's very kind heart than his own low-rent persona. Stiller and his smarmy friend (Chris Elliot, who's quite funny for a while, then plain old annoying, just like he always is) end up journeying to Florida, where they figure out Healy's scam and set about getting Stiller back in the romantic driver's seat.
There are tons of sick gags peppering this stuff, but they're not presented as a string of unrelated non sequiturs, like in one of those "Airplane"-type movies. No matter how far out of the way the Farrellys go to set up a joke, what's happening is usually (and, in these days of monumentally lousy screenwriting, admirably) character-driven. Ted, Mary, and Healy are all clearly defined as personalities, and the humor, more often than not, arises from combining those personalities in the proper setting.
One sequence, in which Dillon secretly drugs, accidentally kills, sets on fire, and then miraculously revives a small dog, is a hoot. Dillon's frantically begging the dog not to "go towards the light" while Diaz and the dog's unwitting owner are in the next room mixing drinks, is a moment of first-class foolishness. It's not as thoroughly "Beavis and Butthead" as it all sounds, either. Dillon's slowly-escalating panic requires real timing. Stupid, but very funny stuff.
The Richman factor
The Farrellys' biggest accomplishment, though, is the ingenious recruitment of singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman as a gently crooning Greek chorus, appearing throughout the film to update us on the state of Stiller's heart. You may not know it from the guileless songs he sings in the movie, but (along with The Velvet Underground) Richman and his band, The Modern Lovers, were prime architects of the punk rock movement in the early 1970s.
Richman soon, however, made a sudden, truly bizarre switch to syrupy-sweet, but nonetheless charming, acoustic love songs. He's been at it for over 20 years now, but, if this movie is a big hit, just watch fraternities and sororities all over America start patting themselves on the back for latching onto this "new" talent. I applaud the Farrellys as much for introducing Richman to the masses as for making the movie. It doesn't all have to be foul, you know.
Simply read the review to see how proudly offensive "There's Something About Mary" can be. Just the fact that I can use the term "mangled penis" in this wrap-up should give you a clue as to whether or not your kids need to see it. They'll probably see it when you're not looking anyway, regardless of your distaste for the humor. I imagine it's already the talk of high schools around the nation. Rated R. 110 minutes.
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