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There's something about the Farrelly brothers...

By Zak Weisfeld

JULY 20, 1998:  Good comedies are few and far between in Hollywood, and it's because you can't just buy them. Unlike a big summer action movie, which is really an elaborate exercise in ego, logistics, and marketing, a really good comedy makes demands that are almost unachievable, at least between the ill-omened Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Honestly, anyone with $100 million and Bruce Willis' phone number can make an action movie. And even a heart-wrenching drama can be pretty easily managed with the help of Robert Redford or Meryl Streep. The question is, can he or she do comedy? And Meryl, after the horror of Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her, would certainly answer this in the negative.

Comedies prey upon all the weaknesses of the Hollywood system—because comedies require good scripts and good casting, not just explosions and marquee names. And the dangers inherent in comedy are far greater than any other genre, because while there's nothing as hard to make as a good comedy, there's nothing worse to watch than a bad one.

Which is why it was with great trepidation in my heart that I went to go see There's Something About Mary, the latest boffo comedy blast from the Farrelly brothers, who were proud to bring you Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, neither of which I would file in my list of good comedies. But because I feel it is my duty to watch and review movies that I don't want to, and because I had a free pass to the sneak preview, I sat down and watched the entire thing.

There's Something About Mary is the story of the perfect woman, Mary, played by somebody's idea of the perfect woman, Cameron Diaz, and the men who think they love her. Chief among these men is Ted, played by Ben Stiller who, after a botched prom date 13 years earlier, is still pining after his dream girl. Because Ted is a sensitive guy (we know this because he's a writer), he finally decides it's time to track down his one true love.

But before delving into what will pass as the substance of this review I have to ask a question—when did being or aspiring to be a writer become equated with sensitivity? Were Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway nice quiet guys who just wanted to be loved? Is even a hack like John Grisham a tenderhearted, tongue-twisted fool for love? Somehow I doubt it.

Most serious writers are self-absorbed jerks and the truly great ones tend to be self-absorbed drunken jerks. But perhaps because poetry is so far out of the main-stream that "poet" seems an entirely imaginary job, like being a unicorn tamer, that writers (of text mind you, not screenplays—those people are still jerks) have had to step in and fill the sensitivity void.

The Farrelly brothers start There's Something About Mary fast and strong. Stiller is mesmerizing as the high-school-age Ted and his ordeals on his prom night take the Farrelly's not overly impressive slapstick to glorious new heights.

There's a perverse, almost medieval quality to much of the comedy of Mary that goes beyond the usual fart jokes to tackle a host of '90s sacred cows. Mary uses the mentally handicapped, the scrotum, homosexuality, and stalking as jokes. And no satirical nudge or wink either, just straight-up gags and the politics be damned.

Because the comedy is so straight it's difficult to tell if the Farrellys are actually making a bold and refreshing comic statement or whether they are just creepy idiots who actually find stalking hilarious. And, ultimately, it's besides the point, because for the most part, they manage to pull it off.

Where Mary is weakest is when it drops the gags and goes for plot and character development. Whatever their skills at crafting funny scenes, neither Farrelly brother can direct his way out of a paper bag with straight lines or romance. The movie also seems unsure what to do with Diaz.

With the exception of wearing very tight dresses and driving the occasional golf ball, Diaz has almost nothing to do except wait for the finale. It's not that she's bad, it's that she has no funny lines, no gags, and no schtick. Diaz goes beyond playing the straight woman to becoming the eye of the storm. The problem is that when anyone else ventures near her they, too, seem to lose comic steam.

The Farrelly brothers commit one other great sin of comedy filmmaking—they go too long. Not for nothing is brevity known as the soul of wit—and as it crept towards the two-hour mark, There's Something About Mary's flaws became more and more apparent.

But, despite its many faults, there were enough weird moments (I was particularly fond of Chris Elliot's spreading sores) to keep the movie watchable. And whenever I started to get a little bored, I just thanked God that Jim Carrey wasn't in it.

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