Twenty years ago this summer There's Something About Mary was a sensation - in part because it very literally had the measure of the times. 1998 was the Year of Monica, in which Ken Starr's Exhibit A was a certain blue dress in, ahem, less than pristine condition. The most famous scene in Mary featured the very same bodily fluid (well, not genetically, but you know what I mean). Peter and Bob Farrelly had just given us Dumb and Dumber and Ben Stiller had starred in Flirting with Disaster, both fine low comedies (I particularly like the "She sent me a John Deere letter" line in the former). But yoked together in There's Something About Mary all three effortlessly limboed under the bar of their own gleefully low standards. If you're looking for a scene involving a smouldering electro-shocked border terrier high on speed, it's hard to beat the one on offer here. It's traditional at this point for the insecure critic to invoke the grand tradition of Molière and Swift, but, to be honest, a better comparison is probably Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles) and the Zucker brothers (Airplane!, Naked Gun). What the Farrellys have done is apply gross-out comedy gags to mainstream romantic comedy, and, oddly enough, it works rather better than most contemporary entries to the genre - for example, the film that catapulted Miss Diaz to the brink of stardom, the insipid My Best Friend's Wedding.
We begin with a flashback — to high school in the Eighties, when an archetypal nerd of the period (Stiller) is asked to the prom by the foxiest babe in town (Cameron Diaz) — all because he stood up for her mentally handicapped brother. "I couldn't believe she knew my name," sighs Ted, looking back. "Some of my best friends didn't know my name." Unfortunately, calling to collect Mary, he makes the mistake of using her bathroom and snags the old pork-and-beans in his zipper. Within minutes, her parents, the police chief and his fire department are gathered around eagerly examining the portion of offending member protruding through his fly — a shot that surely merits an Oscar for Best Part in a Motion Picture. The evening ends prematurely with Ted, screaming and bleeding profusely, being taken away in an ambulance.
Cut to 1998. Ted is still single, still pining for Mary and still boring on about her to his pal (Chris Elliott). The chum suggests hiring a sleazy shamus, Healy (Matt Dillon, with spectacular Chiclet choppers), to find her, but, when he eventually tracks her down, the private dick is smitten, too. He follows Mary around, watching her helping out at the center for the disabled and later telling her girlfriends about her ideal man:
"He has to be self-employed."
"You mean like a drug dealer?"
"I was thinking of an architect. Someone who likes to travel."
Healy acts immediately: he accidentally bumps into her with a set of architectural blueprints, having just returned from his "condo in Nepal". Then he adds that architecture's all very well but not as rewarding as his volunteer work. "What's that?" asks Mary. "I work with retards," says Healy, showing his sensitive side.
Meanwhile, Stiller's character, driving south in hot pursuit, stops for a nocturnal pee at an interstate rest area but makes the mistake of choosing a gay pick-up spot just at the moment it's raided by the police. Even worse, he's arrested as a homosexual serial killer, the remains of whose latest victim have somehow found their way into his trunk. By the time he extricates himself and gets down to Florida, not only is Healy putting the moves on Mary, but so is "Tucker", a crippled English architect who is not what he seems, and is played by Britain's Lee Evans. A dear friend of mine helped discover Mr Evans and propel him to celebrity, but I have to say I always find his character the least persuasive of those besotted to the point of madness by Miss Diaz.
It would be unfair to give away what happens subsequently, except to say that it involves hives, whiteheads on eyelids, cruelty to dogs, an unusual hair gel, pendulous breasts with a George Hamilton tan that only seems to accentuate every wrinkle and a masturbation scene set to Bizet's Carmen (though they probably have the Oscar Hammerstein version in mind: "Beat Out Dat Rhythm On A Drum"). That last musical accompaniment is a good example of the Farrellys' attention to detail.
The brothers protest that they know the bounds of good taste: for example, they cut the scene where Mary's neighbor Magda uses tweezers to pluck a hair from her nipple. Their alleged mean-spiritedness — the dog jokes, the crip jokes, the homicidal-homo jokes - can seem a wee bit calculated, but are artfully poised against the sweet naïveté of the characters. Thus at the time the Farrellys identified as the critical scene the moment when Matt Dillon tracks down Mary in Florida and is smitten himself, and so attempts to dissuade Ben Stiller from pursuing her by saying she's ballooned to 300 pounds - but Stiller's character loves Mary and wants to see her anyway. If the brothers were to try that line these days, they'd be told that by implying there's something less attractive about large women they're being size-ist. Comedy has shriveled dramatically in the last two decades, and I find almost all Hollywood product labeled as such almost unwatchable. But Mary endures because of its particular blend of sweetness and vulgarity: awash in semen, it's nevertheless a markedly innocent film, both in sexual terms and in its broader disposition. Even the scummier characters have an appealing guilelessness, and holding it all together, in a peach of a performance she's never bettered, is Cameron Diaz, bobbling under her Olivia Newton-John bangs and entirey oblivious of the desperate stratagems to which she drives any man who stumbles across her. The guys - Stiller, Dillon, Elliott — are endearingly deranged in their pursuit: I especially liked Dillon's check pants and Hawaiian shirts.
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