Chris Walsh (chris_walsh) wrote,
Chris Walsh

FLASHBACKS: My review of There's Something About Mary, 7/21/1998


How often do you say that – or, more importantly, feel that – in a movie, especially a comedy? How often can a film be funny and painful at the same time? How often does a movie wear you out?

Well, these reactions can, heh heh, easily happen when watching a Farrelly Brothers movie. They’re the two guys who directed Dumb and Dumber and what was a real “Oh my God”-inducer: Kingpin, a story of dirty dealings in the cutthroat world of, um, professional bowling. (“Yeah,” as Mary Lou Retton used to say in ads, “bowling!”)

More to the point, they love to feature people and places – along with body parts, bodily functions and sex acts – you don’t often see in movies. A lot of what they put in their flicks is literally in bad taste, like that bit with the beer bottles in Dumb and Dumber or Woody Harrelson on the farm in Kingpin (I can’t look at a milk moustache the same way again after that film), but you probably know that.

Their sheer effort to take jokes, even bad ones, to gross and insane extremes (it’s almost an Olympic-level effort with them) means that you’ll find something to laugh at in a Farrelly Brothers flick. Even Roger Ebert, who disliked Dumb and Dumber, admits he roared at the sight of the blind kid petting the dead bird.

In their latest film, There’s Something About Mary, you see more of the little-seen, the disgusting and the ridiculous. The little-seen: polyester tuxedos still lingering in the mid-’80s; the glamour capital of Providence, Rhode Island, the brothers’ hometown; high schoolers who wear their backpacks with just one strap over one shoulder (they do this, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a film); and handicapped people who aren’t in the movie merely to be the butt of jokes. The disgusting: lots of crooked, oversized teeth; a really uncomfortable case of zits and hives; the most grizzled breasts in movie history; and a lingering kiss between a woman and her dog. The ridiculous: that same dog going through cardiac arrest, catching fire, whizzing through the air like a hairy bomb then becoming a piece of sculpture. You know, like you saw in the ads.

It’s almost too much. I laughed pretty hard, and I cringed even harder, and I enjoyed myself while in the theater…but I left feeling more wrung-out than anything. I didn’t experience the truly all-powerful, body-pummeling laugh that tells me I’ve just seen a special comedy (a laugh I’ve had at Ghostbusters, Raising Arizona, A Fish Called Wanda and As Good As It Gets). But there are moments that are almost touching, too; you care more about these people than you think you would, even some of the sickos.

The story starts in 1985 as the painfully awkward but sincere Tim (Ben Stiller) pines for Mary (Cameron Diaz), a new girl at his high school. Luckily for Tim, she asks him to the prom; she’s a sucker for nice guys with braces, and she’s touched that he came to the defense of her mentally challenged brother Warren. Unluckily for Tim, he first is made to look undeservedly like a jerk – then he has a zipper accident that I’m not even sure is possible in the real world (and I don’t want to find out if it is!). This is a pain-inducing, eye-twisting head-bender of a visual gag, with one very special shot (again, heh heh) that automatically earned this film an R rating. You have never seen this in a movie; many guys are likely to squirm big time at the sight.

Cut to 1998: a grown-up Tim realizes he’s hung up on Mary and wants to find her again. A comfortably married friend of his (Chris Elliott) sets him up with Healy (Matt Dillon), a sleaze with some P.I. skills who tracks Mary down…and falls for her himself. Healy tries to blow off Tim and get a thing going with Mary, trying to act like her dream guy but making slips like being not-nice to Warren. Tim figures out the ruse, and tries to reach sunny Miami to stop it, getting into more undeserved trouble along the way.

Everything swirls around the fact that, yep, there’s something about Mary. For a lot of guys, she’s the perfect gal: sweet, gorgeous and a sports fan. Unfortunately, she seems to attract a disturbing level of attention; basically, as the film itself admits, some of the guys are practically stalking her.

The result is a collision between the nicely romantic and the immensely tasteless, both in the bodily-functions humor and the fact that almost every guy in the film looks like he could turn dangerous. This is not all that fun to watch.

Still, the Farrelly Brothers are trying to do something different from their first two films, which in my mind automatically puts this ahead of the upcoming Wrongfully Accused (Leslie Nielsen parodies The Fugitive – wasn’t there already U.S. Marshals?) and Jane Austin’s Mafia, both of which look like major-league been there, done that time.

The Brothers actually slow down Mary’s pace and make the movie’s world look kind of like the real world. They’re even concerned with plot this time, keeping it a little more realistic – as opposed to the funny and implausible Kingpin, where budding pro bowler Woody Harrelson’s only hope for regaining his league status is with Randy Quaid as the, well, Amish bowling prodigy (how often have you heard that word combo?)

For a film that had one of the funniest previews in a good long time, a lot in Mary is closer to “funny-odd” than “funny-ha ha” – though there definitely are laughs, especially in the second half. And there are such askew touches as having the film’s composer, Jonathan Richman, appear on-screen to deliver sincerely dopey songs like “There’s something/ About Mary/ That they just/ Don’t know” or “True love isn’t nice.” The film isn’t really interested in explaining this odd touch, it just lets it happen. I admire that.

This is a tasteless comedy with heart. Very, very strange. Adults who know that going in should be able to enjoy it.

P.S. One of the purest moments of fun is in the end credits, which combine outtakes (see Dillon play with the body of his real-life girlfriend Diaz) with the entire cast singing “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Tags: film reviews, flashbacks

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