A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY jjj
½ 

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1998, R, 119 mins.

Ted: Ben Stiller / Mary: Cameron Diaz / Healy: Matt Dillon / Dom: Chris Elliott

Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly / Written By Ed Decter, John J. Strauss and The Farrellys. 

There’s just something about the Farrelly Brothers. 

Aside from the recent Judd Apatow comedies, their collective films have made me laugh harder and more consistently than any other comedic works since the heyday of Mel Brooks.   That latter mentioned filmmaker was a trendsetter for the way he went to once unthinkable lengths to get laughs.  More importantly, his credo was that anything, any subject matter, could – if properly harnessed – generate high hilarity.  Case in point: “Springtime For Hitler”, the side-splittingly funny title to the musical in Brook’s comic dynamo, THE PRODUCERS.  In Brooks’ mindset, even Nazis could be a source of comic inspiration. 

The Farrellys – Bobby and Peter – have the same sort of M.O..  I know of countless people that have been wholly mortified by the lewdness of their collective films.  Yes, many of their films are sort of astronomically crass and contain perverse scenes that would never have seen the light of day in even a racy Brooks film.  However, I found myself appreciating the Farrellys for just those very reasons over the years: They make indecently funny movies and have wholeheartedly succeeded in liberating the commonplace banality that too many modern comedies suffer from.  The genre, for my money, is the trickiest one to tackle, not to mention that it’s decisively difficult to cultivate it into new directions for popular mass consumption.  Yet, no other filmmakers aside from these two brothers from Rhode Island have done more to radically re-invent the screen comedy in the last ten-plus years. 

I guess I find myself marveling at how this pair takes great efforts to abstain from subtlety and restraint.  Political correctness is a non-entity in their films.  Moreover, the Farrellys have never, ever taken the comedic road most traveled to get a laugh.  If you look at their collective resume - from 1994’s DUMB AND DUMBER, to 1996’s KINGPIN (still the most consistently uproarious comedy of that decade) to 2000’s ME, MYSELF, AND IRENE, to 2002’s SHALLOW HAL, to 2003’s STUCK ON YOU – one thing is apparent:  

No subject matter is untouchable.  

That alone is why their comedies have such a fresh sense of emancipation: They are completely unrestrained and unhinged.  Just consider the areas they have approached in their comedies.  They have involved everything from (wait, let me get out my note pad): the morbidly obese, schizophrenics, the mentally handicapped and challenged (more on that later), crazy albinos, multiple amputees, sex-starved Amish men, conjoined twins, serial killers, stockers with foot fetishes, and in their last film, the underrated HEARTBREAK KID, a man that falls in love with a woman…on his honeymoon.  It’s clear that these guys don’t go for the easy laugh. 

Yet, for all of their shocking uncouthness that permeates their films, the Farrellys achieve something that even masters like Brooks were not as talented at: They stretch the boundaries of political correctness and fuse those bawdy elements with characters that invite and inspire our sympathy.  That’s the key that makes their comedies really stand out well above the boundaries of simple, tawdry spectacles of gross out gags.   The characters that populate their comedies, whether they are mentally of physically challenged or not, are ones that we relate to and invest in as characters.  Oftentimes, these characters are forced to endure a vile series of socially awkward incidents that fly right past the border of embarrassing and straight into the uncharted realm of licentious.  That’s why their brand of gross out gags and pratfalls work: We feel for the characters that are the victims.  The Farrellys, most crucially, never mock their subjects.  They ask us to laugh with them, not at them, which is an important delineation which also helps deflect the blame that is placed upon them that they cruelly use mentally challenged and handicapped people to get shameful, sophomoric laughs.  

Their funniest film still is KINGPIN (any film that gets me laughing within the first minute is always a Godsend), but the Farrellys’ true breakout was their 1998 smash hit – and watershed comedic film – THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.  Like KINGPIN, the film adamantly adhered to being a consistent laugh riot, all while ridiculing comedic taboos that were once unthinkable to approach.  On top of that hefty plate, they gave us a tender love story with grounded characters.  This formula for success seems commonplace now:  The AMERICAN PIE films followed suit and Judd Apatow’s recent comedies – the best of the current crop – hold on to the same tenants, reaping critical praise.  Yet, no matter how much I love Apatow’s films, their existence were made possible because of The Farrellys’ recalibration of the genre a decade earlier. 

THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, at face value, is a standard romantic comedy involving a series of men – all having some level of odd dysfunction – that all pine for the affection of the title heroine.  The film was very appropriately rated R, and it was oh-so-refreshing to see an adult comedy be released in a time where the ubiquitous PG-13 comedy reined supreme (which is still does).  MARY is coarse, vulgar, filled with harsh language and dialogue, and has physical sight gags of an extreme nature, one infamous one in particular involving a male bodily fluid.  There are moments, to be sure, that are sickening in MARY, but those very instantaneous reactions are very quickly subdued by great laughter.  MARY is a true “shock-comedy” for the way it  (a) shocks you with a joke or gag and then (b) makes you laugh both at the moments and your shocked reaction to them. 

Again, the true heart of the film is its affable oddball characters.  I think the formula for successful gross out gags is when they occur at the expense of people we like.  Too many Farrelly Brothers imitators (and there have been many over the years) miss this altogether:  They have repulsively disgusting jokes at the expense of people when hate.  These moments, as a result, are just disgusting, not funny.  When we feel for the personas, our investment in them and their reactions to the deplorable moments garners laughs.  

The Farrellys perfectly found an everyman for us to care about in Ben Stiller, who gave a breakout comedic performance in MARY.  When the film begins we have a flashback to 1985 where we see Ted (Stiller) in all of his pimple-faced glory, adorned with huge braces, a shaggy haircut, and an overall geeky sensibility.  This guy is social kryptonite (which is the perfect vehicle for Stiller, who would later perfect the art of channeling social awkwardness for grand humorous effect in his future comedies).  In Ted’s small town high school in Cumberland, Rhode Island he has the ultimate "meet cute" with Mary (a 25-year old Cameron Diaz, never more adorable, spunky, or sexy as she was here).  Ted loves this sweet girl, but his attempts at attracting members of the opposite sex are seriously inept.  Yet, fate steps in when Ted bravely defends Mary’s mentally challenged brother, Warren, from a school bully.  As the trio walks home together Mary – to Ted’s astonishment and delight – asks Ted to the prom.  

What begins as a moment of euphoric glee will end in complete disaster. 

The evening of the prom is a series of social calamites for poor ol’ Teddy.  First, he meets up with Mary’s creepily protective father, which does not start off well, then he is accosted by Mary’s challenged brother when he attempts to give him a gift.  To make matters worse, Mary’s mother catches Ted gawking at a disrobed Mary while urinating, thinking that he’s masturbating.  Ted, in a fit of frustration, quickly zips up his pants…but…catches his…well…you know.  When Mary’s father comes in to check on Ted’s “injury”, he utters one of the film’s many zingers (“Is it the frank or the beans?”).  The Farrellys continue to build and build this scene with a level of comic tension.  We never see the extent of Ted’s wounds, and they carefully frame the camera around it.  We see reaction shots from various people, which makes us think it’s too horrible to see, let alone describe.  But when they do reveal a close up of Ted’s tattered manhood caught in the zipper, it’s one of the most perfectly timed sight gags I've seen because you never expect to see it.  

A cop, of all people, comes in and insists that the best way to solve this problem is the unzip Ted’s privates as quickly as possible (“It’ll be like taking off a band aid").  We don’t get to see it, but we see the cutaway from it, moments later, with Ted on a stretcher, with half the neighborhood watching, and the medic rushes Ted into the ambulance, he screams, “We’ve got a bleeder!”  Warren adding gas to the already high flame, screams to the onlookers, "He was masturbating!"

We flash forward 13 years to 1998 and we see Ted, now a somewhat successful writer, still down on his luck and miserable from his prom night (a sly scene in a psychiatrist's office offers up a well played gag).  Ted does have some solace in his best fried, Dom (Chris Elliot) to hire a private eye to track down Mary so he can deal with his pent up feelings.  At his advice, Ted hires what has to be the sleaziest P.I. ever in the form of Pat Healy (Matt Dillon, in his single funniest performance).  Healy begrudgingly takes the case and he finds out that Mary is now a successful dentist in Miami.  It gets worse for Ted, as Pat instantly falls for her because, let’s face it, she’s a fox!  

Pat returns to inform Ted of his findings, but he manages to lie to him at every turn.  The boldness of his lies is kind of alarming.  Instead of telling Ted that Mary is still a babe, he informs him that she’s a “deuce and a half”, has four children by three fathers, and…yes…is a mail order bride for a Japanese man.  Ted, of course, has a hard time dealing with this, and asks Pat, “What, are the Japanese desperate?  I though Mary was a whale?”  Ted hilariously deadpans back, “You can’t forget, it’s a sumo culture over there.  They pay by the pound.  Kinda like…tuna.” 

Pat then engages in a wild scheme to win over Mary’s affection.  He does his homework on and finally hooks up with Mary at a golf club, where he reveals that he is the perfect man of her dreams, specifically an architect that has a condo in Nepal, loves sports and old movies, and has a fondness for “working with retards,” his most passionate hobby.  Mary is taken a bit aback by Pat’s use of words when referring to her brother and his kind, but Pat shrugs it all off by saying “Yeah, maybe, but hell, no one's gonna tell me who I can and can't work with.  Those goofy bastards are just about the best thing I got going right now.”  Unfortunately, the unknowing Mary falls for the criminally untrustworthy Pat. 

This hits Ted hard, seeing as he has decided to go to Florida to do his own digging, only to find out that Mary’s is not a 250-pound “whale” that is now dating Pat.  He then takes it upon himself to hook up with Mary and to unveil Pat as a fraud.  The problem is that Pat is good at deception, not to mention that there is another potential suitor in the form of Mary’s old friend, Tucker (Lee Evans), who is an architect in crutches that can barely walk (or…can he???).  Then there is also a former love of Mary’s life, a very famous real life NFL’er, who broke her heart years ago, but now may be making a play for her again.  Seldom have more unorthodox characters pined for the love of one woman.  All the characters converge together in one final showdown where Mary has to decide whom she spends her life with.   

Most comedies are content with having a small handful of scenes that are boisterously funny.  I lost track of how many there were in MARY.  The opening gag involving Ted’s wardrobe malfunction, for starters, but then there are others, like Pat’s hilariously offensive game of touch football with Warren and his mentally challenged friends (“Exceptional my ass," he proudly bellows as he scores a touchdown).  There is also a shockingly grotesque moment when Pat accidentally gazes at Mary’s neighbour's naked torso (she is middle aged and so overly tanned that her body looks like beef jerky).  Then there is a insidiously funny montage where Pat tries to sabotage Ted’s date with Mary by feeding her dog speed, which culminates in the most gleefully funny man versus dog fight in the history of movies (a brief close-up, which is a homage to the Three Stooges, gets a huge laugh).   

Two of the film’s funniest sequences involving a classic staple of comedy: the misunderstanding and a more obvious sight gag.  The first occurs when Ted picks up a hitchhiker that is clearly crazy (he wants to make a revolutionary seven minute Ab workout video, but Ted ruins his vibe by saying that he hopes no one makes a six minute variation).  He then pulls the car over to a rest stop, not realizing that this one is where homosexuals gather for anonymous sex.  Ted is caught in a police sting, but what he does not know is that the hitchhiker left a dead body stowed away in Ted’s car, so now the cops think that he’s a psychopath.  The dialogue exchange between the interrogating cops and Ted is masterfully timed.  The hotheaded detective indirectly asks him why Ted did it (Ted thinks he’s referring to picking up a hitchhiker) and he responds, “I dunno…boredom I guess.”   The exasperated cop then asks “how many” Ted has off'ed over the years, and the confused Ted responds “Hitchhikers? I don't know - fifty... a hundred maybe - Who keeps track?  Hey, I know this is the Bible Belt, but where I come from this is not that big a deal.”  The cop, in a fit of rage, starts to merciless beat Ted’s head on the interrogation table. 

The next moment in question is the film’s most notorious.  Ted is about to go on a date with Mary, and his old buddy Dom is shocked that Ted does not “flog his dolphin” before every date.  Ted is startled, but Dom tells him that going out on a date with a “loaded gun” is scientifically an accident waiting to happen.  Miraculously, he convinces Ted to masturbate his stress away.  Just as he’s about to finish, Mary rungs his doorbell, and Ted can’t seem to find where his…well…man juice went.  When Ted answers the door we are privy to one of the most disgustingly funny reveals of the movies.  Mary thinks that the substance that’s hanging off Ted’s ear is “hair gel”.  First, it’s outrageous that the Farrellys give us the reveal of the missing semen, but then when Mary grabs it, mistaking it for gel, and we later see the after effects, it generates another of the film’s notoriously inspired reveals.  I originally saw MARY in a packed theatre opening weekend and I don’t think I have ever encountered such disbelieving and sustained laughter in a cinema.  These moments generated such a word of mouth infamy, which, no doubt, solidified MARY as the comedy to see in ’98. 

Yet, despite the film’s grotesque menagerie of sickly images and gags, there is an undercurrent of sweetness to MARY.  Once you are willing to acknowledge and brace yourself with all of the film’s debauchery, then the underlining story of Ted’s love and attempts to woe Mary are all the more tender.  If one looks past the scatological carnage that MARY leaves, then it's easy to admire all of the characters that we have a rooting interest for.  The casting is crucial, because with Stiller as Ted we have a person that we sympathize with alongside laughing at his plight.  An effective foil against Ted’s do-gooder status are Matt Dillon’s Pat Healy, who exudes duplicitous seediness to hysterical effect.  Cameron Diaz, effectively the straight woman amidst all of the film’s weird suitors, perfectly underplays her character to proper effect, a trait that she seems to have forgotten in future performances.

MARY was a sleeper hit in 1998 and became the third highest grossing comedy of its year and the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all-time (it would take WEDDING CRASHERS nearly eight years later to top it at the box office as the most successful youth-aimed R-rated comedy).  The film, aside from being a fan favorite, was lauded by the critical community.  It was recently placed #27 on the AFI’s 100 Funniest films ever and a 2000 Total Film Magazine poll rated it the 4th funniest film of all time.  If it were not for the existence of the Farrellys' slightly superior comedy effort, KINGPIN, then MARY would,  in my opinion, be the finest comedy of the 90’s. 

Like it or hate it, for better or for worse, the landscape of the screen comedy was irrevocably changed in the wake of the Farrelly’s monstrously successful THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY.  It cheerfully broke the accepted status quo of what could be done in comedies and daringly went for broke.  The film combined everything in the kitchen sink, from slapstick and toilet humor that straddles the line between comedy and poor taste, a colorful and upbeat soundtrack, and agreeable characters that we can devote ourselves to (the latter a prerequisite for romantic comedies).  The Farrellys have been chastised for using mental and physical disabilities in their films (MARY is no exception), but the even-handedness and kindheartedness that they show to their disabled characters demonstrates that they don’t spite them - they sympathize with them through laughter (the brothers are tirelessly involved in real life with the mentally challenged).  If anything, THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY is clearly indicative of the unique recipe that the Farrellys helped define to give credence to future comedies, both good and bad.  MARY is the original romantic disaster comedy, mixing a gentle and affectionate story with crudeness.  Because of that, the film is a very rare comedy that is able to leap over its more noteworthy vulgarity and into something more satisfying.

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