There’s Something About Mary (1998)

The Farrelly brothers default filmmaking mode is gross-out humor, and that’s unmistakably on display in their biggest hit, There’s Something About Mary from 1998, for better and worse. (The balance between “better” and “worse” will depend quite a bit on individual taste, but I find it to be a pretty even split here). Certainly many of the movie’s disgusting slapstick gags are creative, memorable, and iconic. The semen hair gel is the most famous example, but Ben Stiller’s battle with a drugged-up dog is the funniest.

But there’s something else important about this movie that’s probably it’s second most striking feature beyond the shock-humor slapstick: It’s over two hours long! Two fucking hours, man, for a goddamn gross-out frat boy comedy. Talk about exhausting and padded.

And yet…

I find There’s Something About Mary to be kind charming. Admirable, even.

Beyond the wacky gags and set pieces, this movie attempts to be a satire of romantic comedy. Mary is a sort of perfect dream girl but also one of the guys — the kind of attainable Hollywood blonde bombshell that rom-coms traffic in, but don’t exist in real life. Her real flaw is that she falls for any guy with whom she shares a superficial connection, perhaps driven by coincidences like shared favorite movies and “meet-cutes.”

It’s the guys who come off worse. There’s Something About Mary ratchets every toxic so-called “romantic” element of romantic comedies to a horrifying 11: Stalker behavior, refusal to accept “no” for an answer, dreaming about long-lost small connections, sticking to dumb lies. It warps every male character into a crusty, slimy piece of crap, to the point that it ruins the protagonist we are actually supposed to root for.

On paper, all of this is pretty clever. In practice, it means we spend a lot of time with awful, miserable people, and we want Mary to join a convent to avoid the creeps she attracts.

Worst of all, the movie actually tries to be a legitimate romantic comedy under all of the satire, so that it’s tough to take seriously when Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz share romantic moments the film intends to be genuine.

Despite all its flaws, there’s a pleasing flow and narrative thrust to the movie. It demonstrates more ambitions than, say, Dumb and Dumber, which is unabashedly a joke vehicle. And if it doesn’t stick the landing, it sure as hell tries. There are a lot of compelling twists and flourishes, like a troubadour that follows the story around, adding to a sense of gravity and destiny, and one of the best credits sequences in movie history: Clips of characters singing along to “Build Me Up Buttercup” from various scenes of the movie. It’s so sweet and lovely it almost almost convinces me I love the movie more than I actually do.

It’s also hard to deny that the cast, overstuffed with talented comedians and “no way, him/her?” cameos, delivers. Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller carry the movie. Matt Dillon inhabits his sleazebag character (I blame this movie for ruining him in other films). Chris Elliot is a gross goon. Brett Favre is here for some reason. And so many others. It’s a fun time, and nearly a great one.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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