'There's Something About Mary'

Posted: Thursday, July 16, 1998

There's something about ``There's Something About Mary'' that you should know. It's the most shockingly funny movie of the season.

The shocking part ought to be easy enough to figure. Mary was directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the brothers who gave us ``Dumb and Dumber'' and ``Kingpin.''

Shocking the audience - in the ``grossing out'' sense - is part of their job description. Bodily functions are their business.

What makes ``Mary'' more than merely another stupid gross-out comedy is that the Farrellys don't simply, for example, show us a scene in which the hero, Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller), gets his fly caught on his private parts. The filmmakers really set up that scene and follow through on it.

We see the nice-but-awkward Ted in his rented tuxedo on his way to pick up Mary Jenson (Cameron Diaz), his almost-too-beautiful-to-be-true prom date. We see Ted using the bathroom at Mary's house, becoming alarmed at something he notices out the window and zipping up too rapidly.

Then we watch as Mary's stepfather, mother and a succession of other people view the damage and offer advice and/or help. Finally, we see Ted, in utter agony, being wheeled out to an ambulance, his prom plans - if not his privates - hopelessly crushed.

I can't say that I recall the Marx Brothers ever performing a routine quite like that one. But that is the way they used to structure their comedy sequences - building them tiny step by tiny step, detail by excruciatingly funny detail.

Is it pushing things to say that the Brothers Farrelly are the natural successors to the Brothers Marx? You might not think so after watching ``Mary.''

That scene, by the way, isn't only hilarious. It's also central to the plot, which picks up 13 years later.

As things have developed, Ted feels unfulfilled because he has never seen Mary after their disastrous prom night. Her family soon moved from Rhode Island to Miami and the two of them have lost touch.

``There's Something About Mary,'' then, is a romantic comedy about Ted's quixotic quest to re-locate his dream girl.

The script - which the Farrellys wrote with Ed Decter and John J. Strauss - keeps finding new ways to be outrageous. But the directors sustain an ebullient tone that keeps the action from becoming stomach-turning or too threatening.

Usually, anyway.

Some of what goes on here I would not even attempt to discuss in what we like to call a family newspaper. One gambit begins with Ted masturbating and takes it from there.

A more describable sequence involves Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), a shady insurance investigator whom Ted hires to find Mary and who falls in love with her himself.

To make a small frisky dog easier to handle, Ted drugs the animal. But the drugs make it stop breathing, so Ted attempts artificial respiration.

When that fails, he tries electric shocks, which work, but which also set the pooch on fire. The next we see of the little dog, he's standing immobile, wrapped from head to foot in bandages.

Again: set-up and follow-through - and topper.

I must admit that sort of thing usually isn't my cup of tea. And yet I found myself laughing out loud a lot. But then it isn't often that people with as much sheer comedy savvy as the Farrelly Brothers apply it to gross-out humor.

The Farrellys also have an eye for talent.

Stiller (``The Cable Guy'') is credible as nerd-hero Ted, although his emphasis may be a bit too much on the nerd part. And Dillon, as Pat, is the ultimate slime - a guy who cheats when he plays checkers with Mary's mentally disabled brother.

W. Earl Brown, who plays that brother, displays an endearing sweetness, while Lee Evans (Nathan Lane's co-star in ``Mousehunt'') as Mary's fussy friend, Chris Elliott as Ted's hives-plagued buddy and Lin Shaye as Mary's sun-worshipping neighbor make for an amusingly unsettling supporting cast.

The directors have had the wonderful inspiration of getting rocker Jonathan Richman to narrate the movie in a variety of song styles, turning up every so often dressed in an outfit that fits each style. Richman's tuneful narration adds an element of hip earnestness to the proceedings.

``True love is not nice,'' he cautions as he gazes out at us with his big, puppy-dog eyes. ``No, no.''

``Mary'' is a little uneven and, it may go without saying, not for all tastes. But the Farrellys, despite their fondness for gross-out humor, turn out to be true romantics. And they've grounded their movie in an ingeniously romantic idea.

The premise is that Mary is so very attractive that virtually every man she meets is simultaneously attracted to and intimidated by that attractiveness.As a result, almost every man resorts to deception to win her love.

Living up to the title role is a tall order, but the tall, slender Diaz is certainly up to the challenge. Bright, sunny and funny, she's always ready with a smile so wide and lovely that it rivals that of her ``My Best Friend's Wedding'' co-star, Julia Roberts.

Whatever Diaz has, it gives even the most disturbing parts of this picture a fresh, sexy sparkle. There is, I guess you could say, just something about her.

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