There's Something About Mary
Directors: Peter & Bobby Farrelly. Cast: Cameron Diaz, Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott, Lee Evans, Keith David, Markie Post, Lin Shaye, Jeffrey Tambor. Screenplay: Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly.

Both the totally over-the-top sense of humor in this picture and the warm enthusiasm it has engendered among the public leave me no alternative: I feel like a total schmuck for not finding Mary to be the riotous, romantic parfait that everyone has described. In fact, I thought There's Something About Mary was a pretty dismal picture, and since I very cynically expect to make zero headway with anyone who didn't already agree with me, I will not take much time explaining my disappointment. Here are a few itemized complaints, though in the interest of balance, I will throw in those aspects of the picture that I did find amusing and appealing. Unfortunately, that last part is not going to require much space. Why not begin with the good stuff?

1. There's Something About Mary has a winner of a cast, particularly in the joyously wide-mouthed, glitteringly beautiful Cameron Diaz. Not only is hers a face that I will relish the chance to see in more movies (and Mary's success can hardly produce any other outcome), but I do believe her to be a gifted and welcome addition to our roster of able comediennes. Actually, scratch the gender mark: make it "comedians," since there are so few comic presences of either sex that time after time, picture after picture, seem all but invulnerable to even lame gags and impossible situations. (Just for kicks, among working actors I would place Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Judy Davis, Janeane Garofalo, and Queen of them all, the outrageously underrated Meg Ryan in this category too, though there are certainly others.) Diaz's karaoke scene in My Best Friend's Wedding was somehow both the most moving and possibly the most laugh-worthy moment in a movie that had more than its share of bright moments and characters. Here, Diaz shows an even more winning array of smiles, laughs, and line-readings that keep Mary afloat much longer than it deserves, but we'll get to that soon enough. Short version: she's a keeper, and Ben Stiller also passes the comic test admirably.

2. Okay, here's the Big Objection. I think the funniest moments in films—and I am carefully stating this as a personal taste, so object as you will!—are those that come from specific situations involving particular people. The same joke, all things being equal, is funnier if it involves or springs from a character's personality or from the necessary succession of events in that character's life; less powerful is a one-liner or sight-gag that doesn't refer to anything, but just spills out from the writer's impulse to throw in a joke. You can always tell when the script, not the character, is straining for a laugh, which is why the best comedies (The Opposite of Sex, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, and When Harry Met Sally... are terrific recent examples) put their jokes in the mouths of the only characters who could really say them, and who mean them. Almost every line or event in these pictures is funny, because they all make a certain kind of sense within the story, however outrageous, and within the contexts of the characters, however outlandish they would seem in real life.

The Farrelly Brothers, however, just throw their gags at whoever wants to catch 'em. They don't seem comfortable with their craft, and they seem to grasp from some hyperactive reflex at any joke they can get, like toddlers trying desperately to spear fish in a creek—a shallow creek. Because of all this, nearly every moment in There's Something About Mary aims for comedy, but the film follows no patterns, and it never matters who says what joke, or when, or why. The picture's most memorable gags, such as the infamous "hair-gel" fiasco, an insane character's skin affliction, or the wild attacks of a narcotic-influenced dog, all put a yuk-grabbing pause on the development of plot and character, rather than moving them forward. Every joke is an aside, since nothing that actually happens in this movie is actually funny. You could boil down the plot to a nerd's yearning pursuit of an impossible ideal who simultaneously attracts the affections of at least three other men, all of whom are psychotic, pathetic, or otherwise unworthy of Our Cameron. The Farrellys flunk any requirement for story or structure, and the picture gets to a point where the "rivals" who fight over Mary are barely distinguishable from one another.

3. My other major complaint essentially restates the old adage that it's "all in the timing." Even a random series of jokes can work all right for me (as in the better parts of The Big Lebowski) if they seem energetic and spontaneous, but most of the climaxes in Mary are so drawn-out, and we see them coming from such a distance, that the moment of their eruption is almost an after-thought. We have already laughed at the dog who ate the drugs, and have already realized that Stiller will be his victim, well before the actual melee takes place. The Zipper Catastrophe goes for the gut all right, but the whole thing takes so much time and involves so many unnecessary characters that the joke has expired minutes before the sequence actually does.

Other patterns like the endless supply of Mary-stalkers or the popping up of those sappy, ode-singing troubadours are reprised a few too many times to be funny as the picture goes on. The darker implication of this picture's success is that people are calling "sweet" and "romantic" a central plot thread by which a woman is systematically and aggressively stalked—Stiller's behavior alone raises plenty of eyebrows, especially when euphemized as dreamy persistence, and the other guys are out and out villains. Sorry if I sound like the Man with a Megaphone screaming, "I have a cause!," but really, the core facts of There's Something About Mary are ugly and worrisome. The Farrellys quite dangerously make them seem innocent and appealing just because the random jokes surrounding them are so baroquely disgusting and awful. Moral turpitude and unhealthy fixation come off as sunnier alternatives to scatological wallowing. None of these represent great choices.

When you write and criticize me, be kind. I will be curious to see what the Farrelly brothers put out next (and I have not seen either of their earlier pictures, Dumb & Dumber or Kingpin), especially if they learn how the camera, the editing room, or even a script revision can make their jokes even funnier. I am a full subscriber to the belief that there is indeed Something about their gawky, approachable, sunny Mary—I just wish the cruel but weirdly fragile film around her had better, crisper ideas of how to bring that dazzling Something to fullest flower. Grade: D

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Cameron Diaz

Other Awards:
Producers Guild of America: Vision Award
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Diaz)

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