In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ve got to admit that I’m inclined to respect any movie that can send a full row of audience members scurrying for the door before the end of the first reel.
So I gave There’s Something About Mary the benefit of the doubt at about 15 minutes in, when the first of the film’s brazen money shots hit the screen. My eyes got wide, I may have gasped a little, and that’s pretty much the intended effect. Someone behind me murmured, “I can’t believe they showed that!” Another family of five headed for the exit.
“Showing that” is pretty much the glue holding There’s Something About Mary together. It’s directed by the Farrelly Brothers (Peter and Bobby), whose previous films (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin) I haven’t seen, but whose favored cinema aesthetic is reputedly the intransigent gross-out. That being said and understood, TSAM‘s most disappointing characteristic is the mean time between gross-outs. That first joke wore off pretty quickly, and I found myself sitting in my chair for the next half hour, nursing my watch and considering making my exit. Only a curiosity about what these people had in mind for the resolution of their little yarn kept me planted.
Fortunately, they devised a boffo climax that almost, but not quite, tops the audacity of the film’s first reel and helps you forgive the distended midsection. Steadfastly outre and eager to please, There’s Something About Mary is messy, derivative and in altogether questionable taste. At worst, it’s unapologetically dopey, coasting along on bad jokes and a script that works mostly at the level of a sitcom. At its best, it’s a feel-good appeal to the insecure adolescent in all of us, with the requisite heart of gold. In between, well, it’s just so-so.
Thin-mustached Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) is a sleazy private detective hired by hapless Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) to track down a girl named Mary (Cameron Diaz), with whom Stiller had a single disastrous high school prom date and of whom he thinks, no doubt, every day of his life. Healy recognizes a good thing when he sees it — and Diaz looks almost ridiculously good in every variety of clingy fabric the costume team could procure, god bless ’em. So he concocts a phony story to put Ted off her trail — she’s ballooned to fish-like proportions, she lives in a wheelchair, etc. — and starts wooing her himself, putting her under surveillance and eavesdropping on her conversations to get the inside track on her heart.
Dillon, usually so reliable, was the fella giving me a bad case of the yawns. The Farrelys cast the amiable Stiller opposite supervixen Cameron Diaz, and the movie’s at its best when it’s telling their story — schmuck meets supervixen, schmuck loses supervixen, schmuck stalks supervixen with the aim of winning her back. Dillon is Diaz’s real-life sweetheart, but nevertheless turns in a one-note performance in what amounts to just one more story about a sleazebag male romancing a perky female who’s too stupid to realize she’s being had.
You’ve seen it before, so the copious screen time given to this routine is lamentable. Equally tedious are the uninspired gags that score simply by aiming as low to the ground as possible (cripple jokes, retard jokes, gay jokes, etc; if the movie’s main target wasn’t straight white guys, this might get offensive). Other bits are hit and miss. Some physical comedy between Dillon and a dog is pretty good. I laughed hard, for some reason, at a last-minute cameo appearance by somebody who shares my initials. The “hair gel” scene is already a lowbrow classic. And a running gag having to do with lesions on Chris Elliot’s face is downright disturbing. (One thing that can be said for a film as recklessly unmodulated as this one is that anything can happen.)
Once TSAM gives the charming Stiller and Diaz some space to themselves, it comes to life, at last approaching the screwball status to which it clearly aspires. The final reel, in particular, is solid, which counts for a lot. And if there’s anything at all to be said for a lowbrow comedy that casts Jonathan Richman as geek chorus, it’s that it’s probably not as dumb as it looks. Cut this flick down to 90 minutes, and you’ve really got something.
Directed by Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly
Written by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
Edited by Christopher Greenbury
Cinematography by Mark Irwin
Starring Ben Stiller, Cameron Diaz, and Matt Dillon
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.85:1