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Unzipping "Something About Mary"

By Ray Pride

JULY 13, 1998:  Ah, the limits of bad taste. Here's a conversational topic Peter and Bobby Farrelly have heard before. As the makers of "Dumb and Dumber," "Kingpin" and now "There's Something About Mary," they've forged a brand of gross-out humor that relies on one gleeful shock after another.

"Mary" is a romantic comedy about a kind, angelic woman (Cameron Diaz) who attracts only stalkers. Sometimes tender, mostly wildly over-the-top, the Farrellys have managed to make a movie at least ten times funnier than "Dumb and Dumber." The style of their latest envelope-pushing outrage is less anything for a laugh than everything for a laugh.

The opening setpiece alone, which the Farrellys call "the franks 'n' beans scene," would be enough to market any other contemporary comedy. Ben Stiller, suffering one humiliation after another on prom night, starts with getting a few delicate things caught in his tux zipper.

"That actually happened," says Peter, the older brother. "My sister Cathy had a party when she was twelve. The cool kid in the class, a guy named Al Erie, went to the bathroom, didn't come out for about an hour. My father's a doctor, my mother's a nurse, they were worried about him, went in there and found him all tangled up in there. Took about an hour to undo."

"Mary" began as a script by a couple of their friends. "About ten years ago Ed Decter and John Strauss wrote this script about a guy who tries to track down his high school girlfriend and hires a private eye [Matt Dillon] who falls in love with her," Peter says. "We thought it was a great premise. We followed the script through development hell at Disney where they ruined it. When they got the rights back, we decided to rewrite it. Some of the stuff we make up ourselves, some of the stuff we take from things that happen. Like the zipper scene."

"When we start writing," Bobby adds, "all we like to know is what's the first act, what's the setup?"

"Mary" has three charming actors in the central roles, but also more story than their first two films combined. "The first two movies were a lot of gags," Peter says. "We decided the third movie, we'll give critics a plot if that's what they need. If you lifted the big gags out of this, you'd still have a love story."

So what about bad taste? "Bad taste?" Peter says quickly. "Bad taste is when something doesn't get a laugh. If people laugh, we're all for it. I mean, we have boundaries. We don't pick on individuals. We don't do Chelsea Clinton jokes. We don't pick on critics!"

"Everyone else thinks there's some group who's gonna be mad at us," Bobby says. "Those people never are."

"We've never, ever gotten one letter from one group saying 'Hey, y'know what, this really bugged us.' Zero," Peter adds.

Bobby continues the volley. "I think the viewing audience is hipper than you think. When we sell a dead bird to a blind kid in a wheelchair in 'Dumb and Dumber,' I don't think anyone thinks we're saying that's a good thing to do. We're saying that it's so politically incorrect, that's the joke, it's insane."

Peter offers up their recurring curmudgeon in a wheelchair. "The guy in 'Kingpin' who pulls the power switch when Woody gets his arm cut off, he's the same actor who's yelling at Matt in this movie when he's moving him into his apartment: 'You fucking nicked my piano, you asshole.' That guy's a friend of ours and he is in a wheelchair, his name's Danny Murphy. We've known him for twenty-five years. In fact, I was with him when he broke his neck.

"Danny's always complained, 'How come every time they show a guy in a wheelchair he's a sweet good guy? He's like an angel on this earth,'" Peter relates. "'Why don't people realize that most people who break their necks are maniacs, y'know, that's how they break their necks, on motorcycles going a hundred-ten, or they're diving off cliffs. Some bad, some good, some smart-asses."

The conversation comes back around to the opening scene of "Mary" with its ultra-painful extra-personal sight gag. "God's honest truth, when we wrote these jokes, they made us laugh. Particularly the zipper," Bobby says. "The whole situation probably works on its own without the sight gag. But we owed it to ourselves to shoot it and test it. We're big believers in testing. We sure didn't think it would work. But when audiences see that, they can't believe what they're seeing."

"That's what humor is," Peter says. "If anyone thinks we're going beyond the line of good taste, what we're really doing is going beyond what's expected. When Jeff Daniels sits on the toilet in 'Dumb and Dumber,' the door's expected to be shut. When he pulls his pants down, we're expected to cut away. When he starts gushing, they can't believe it. Audiences have been given certain things through all the years in movies. That's why you laugh when you see the thing. Everybody has bodily functions and there are jokes to be made about it. It's not like some UFO came down, it's so far-fetched. This bathroom humor we're doing is the kind of stuff that does happen."

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