|Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz in There’s Something About Mary (1998).|
The R-rated comedy that also qualifies as a great film is a rare breed. Comedies, according to popular wisdom, are as hard to pull off as dramas, if not more so – and so raunchy, adult-themed comedies face the uniquely difficult task of being funny, smart, and provocative all at once. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, directors of slapstick comedies like Dumb & Dumber, Kingpins, and The Three Stooges, might not outwardly appear to have mastered this tricky balance, but their 1998 gross-out masterpiece, There’s Something About Mary, tips their hand. It’s a film that everyone remembers for a single, horrifically uncomfortable sight gag, but it stands up amazingly well under critical scrutiny. Successors to the Farrelly throne, like the ultra-popular Judd Apatow and his league of friends and collaborators, have gotten it half-right: they make memorable R-rated comedies with funny performances and clever gags, but these films often fall apart in narrative structure, or simply in terms of using film as a medium to its fullest potential. In short, there’s really something about There’s Something About Mary, which sets it apart not just as a fantastic comedy but an excellent film.
This was probably the last time that Ben Stiller would ever be able to play a high schooler (three years later, in Zoolander, he had already broken the illusion of any believable innocence he once had). His hapless Ted, besotted with Cameron Diaz’s gorgeous Mary, manages through happenstance to score a prom date with her, but ruins his chance at young love by accidentally placing himself in the most painfully awkward situation a teen could ever experience. Years later he’s still a hopeless schmuck, still pining for Mary, who’s moved to Miami where she cares for her mentally-challenged brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown) and lives with a weathered spinster named Magda (Lin Shaye). Of course, Ted doesn’t know any of this, until his friend Dom (Chris Elliott) convinces him to hire a private investigator named Healy (an amazingly greasy Matt Dillon) to track her down – which results in a very messy situation, as Healy finds himself falling for Mary himself. The film escalates beautifully from there into a series of increasingly excruciating slapstick setups and payoffs, all motivated by character and paced with precision. You could be forgiven for letting the film’s craft slip you by in the wake of its gross-out gags and near-constant laughs.
There’s Something About Mary is almost an anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie, in that it’s a film that’s about the girl herself as much as the hapless schmucks that remain stuck in orbit around her. In another film in which Ted was the focus, she would probably qualify as an MPDG, but There’s Something About Mary paints her in varied shades that allow her to have the qualities of a real human being, and exist as more than just an unattainable symbol of white male romantic frustration. Mary doesn’t pay the bills as a flighty artist or musician, or have any other kind of outwardly cool profession that would illuminate her elusive attractiveness: she’s an orthopedic surgeon. She’s not “movie smart,” she’s genuinely smart, in a non-affected way (similarly, she likes football and hot dogs because that’s what she likes, not because they’re quirky, unusually non-girly things to like). She also values kindness, generosity and innocence in her relationships, which is a realistic way to explain why she remains unattached into her later adulthood – she’s so beautiful that she attracts men who only see her for her outward appearance, which leaves her cold, and hopelessly waiting for the nice guy who would always be too shy to ask her out anyway. She is utterly devoted to her brother Warren, and often puts his happiness ahead of her own. Mary is the only character in the film who is depicted as a normal person, while a veritable freak show of repressed, selfish idiots – including the quote-unquote “hero”, Ted – surround her. And a large part of the success of her depiction, apart from the script, is due to Diaz’s brilliant performance. It’s easy to forget, amidst recent clunkers like Sex Tape, Bad Teacher, and Knight and Day, that Diaz is a wonderfully capable actress whose knockout looks belie a real talent for personal, intimate performance (her gonzo turn in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, however, is a debate all its own). She makes Mary funny, genuinely funny, in her universe as well as ours. She fucks with Stiller’s character on a constant basis (like when she convinces him for a brief moment that she’s bisexual), turning his nervous diffidence into a source of amusement for both of them – and this functions not only as a character trait, but a setup for his disbelief when she ultimately picks him, because even when he gets what he’s always wanted, he assumes she’s still fucking with him. The film ends there, so we never get to find out – but maybe she is? She certainly has enough agency to do so, but the choice to be with Ted is hers, and she’s likeable enough that you wouldn’t wish it upon her if it wasn’t what she truly wanted.
|Lee Evans and Matt Dillon in There's Something About Mary (1998).|
There’s Something About Mary might be the last movie that would be able to get away with “retard” jokes (until Tropic Thunder, which Stiller directed, and which not only trades on being as offensive as possible, but doesn’t treat this subject with half the respect the Farrellys do). Warren’s mental handicap is never the joke in itself; it’s in how people react to him and reveal their own ignorance or bigotry. When Healy tries to bluff his way into Mary’s heart by pretending that he works “with the retards” and that that one “Mongo” kid has “a forehead like a drive-in movie screen, but he’s a good shit, so we don’t bust his chops too much,” you laugh not because what he’s saying is true (it isn’t), but because he’s such a goddamn idiot. The film shows consideration for those like Warren whose handicaps are not intentional or controllable, and disdain for those who affect these qualities – like Lee Evans’ Tucker, who is yet another creep-in-disguise whose posh English accent and architectural background are a sham, and who had a friend break his spine with a bat so he could receive treatment from Mary. Even Dom, the film’s purveyor of man-to-man wisdom (he speaks to Ted with authority because he’s married and has kids, and therefore apparently knows far more about being a man than Ted), subverts his apparent purpose when he turns out to be the most pathetically perverse of them all.
It’s with this kind of hidden sensitivity that the Farrelly brothers reveal their impeccable comedic craft. They’re masters of slapstick, with perfect senses of comedic escalation and timing (like the infamous zipper scene, in which they refrain from showing you what all the characters are gaping at in Ted’s crotch, until you think you’re safe from the gross visual, at which point they promptly show it in all its cringe-inducing detail – effectively doubling the shock value of the gag). When Healy overdoses Magda’s dog in an effort to make it appear docile around him, the Farrellys conduct Dillon’s performance in trying to resuscitate it with an expert balance of absurdity and genuine tension. The dog dummy looks completely fake when Healy shocks it with the lamp cable, jerking into the air while sparks fly from its stomach, but it works because of Dillon’s palpable panic and the fantastic pacing of the scene. It sounds trite, but it really takes incredible intelligence to be this dumb, and maintain such a high level of engagement with your audience.
I would never have noticed the subtle genius of There’s Something About Mary if I had seen it when it came out. It was seeing it now for the first time, with the benefit of this past decade’s worth of mostly-mediocre comedies, that illuminated how original and how excellent it is. I’m hard pressed to think of a comedy that treats its female characters with this much respect – especially one belonging to the gross-out family of films that spawned legions of imitators who kept the semen jokes but forgot about the smarts. Don’t judge Mary by her cover: she’s way better than you deserve.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.