Monday, August 18, 2008

Ben Stiller's gross-out cinematic heritage: There's Something about Mary


Dave Itzkoff's article in today's New York Times meditates on the "refined art of tastelessness" when it comes to vulgar gross-out R-rated films that began in the late 70s with Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House, and continues today with Superbad and Pineapple Express. In honor of that distinguished cinematic heritage, I dusted off my old review of There's Something about Mary released in 1998. Note the occasional similarity with Tropic Thunder. The review was entitled "Low end of the food chain":

I thought perhaps There’s Something About Mary might prove unreviewable. What is there to say about bottom feeder level delicate membranes-stuck -in-your-zipper jokes that make the 3 stooges look dignified, high class, and austere in contrast? How about a movie that routinely makes fun of mentally disabled men, cripples with palsied legs, overly sunburnt dowagers, and anyone with hives, acne, or fishing lures stuck through their cheeks? Much as I did laugh in spots, I mostly found the Farrelly brothers’ Dumb and Dumber concoction alarming. Geeky guys stalking Cameron Diaz en masse, a world of apemen spying on each other, each one more pathological, isolated, and deranged than the last. Is this what modern man has come to?

The movie begins cutely enough with a band playing a love song in a tree. A kind of chorus, they show up on occasion to sing of Ted’s (Ben Stiller’s) 13-year unrequited love for Mary. Sporting a classic early 80’s shaggy long hair style and braces, Ted defends Mary’s retarded brother from some bully. Consequently, she asks him out to the senior prom. When he arrives at her house to pick her up, he accidentally glimpses Mary getting dressed outside a bathroom window and in his nervousness zips up his pants on his manhood. In a scene structured much like Dorothy’s homecoming in The Wizard of Oz, everyone comes in to exclaim over his condition, a policeman arrives at the window, and soon enough Ted goes to the hospital for several weeks of healing instead of the prom.

Cut to 13 years later. Ted hires a private detective, Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to search for Mary, who now, as it turns out, works as a surgeon in Miami. Pat falls for her instead, and pretty soon there are around 5 dumb and dumber guys circling Mary. Most of them lie about their identity, use fancy surveillance techniques to spy on her, and fetishize over her when they’re not after each other in the hazy lighting of sleazy Miami.

Matt Dillon appears to have a good time parodying his handsome charm, flashing huge fake teeth for an easy gag. In her turn Mary gamely takes care of a Benji-like dog who wigs out on amphetamines. I imagine Diaz picked this film to stretch her comedic abilities after her celebrated karaoke scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, but she comes off as one human character in a world full of grotesque hunchbacks. She’s the only blonde in this planet of the apes.

Perhaps I’m not looking at this movie in the right way. I should just learn to yuck yuck yuck along with all of the adolescent guys who eat this up, but it smells of the increasing devolution of young men in the Darwinian celebrity sweepstakes. Cameron Diaz can walk off the set and go star in another movie. Peeping Toms, stalkers, and drooling creeps can return, I guess, to their troglodyte worlds.

2 comments:

BeaufortBay said...

Ben Stiller is not all bad or dumb and dumber movies. He acted in a movie directed by Edward Norton called In Good Faith, in which Stiller is a young rabbi and Norton is his childhood friend who has become a Catholic priest. Both men are in love with one childhood sweetheart, and the comic problem is that the rabbi can't marry outside his faith and the Catholic priest can't marry at all.

Being about organized religions, the movie will never do well, and it is a romantic comedy with no skin showing, so it is like Knocked Up without the dirty jokes. But Stiller and Norton, at least, do a commendable job showing the tensions between religious beliefs and youthful desires.

FDr said...

I agree. I was disconcerted with Stiller undermining his better ideas at times in Tropic Thunder. The latter third seemed to devolve into comical battles with bad guys, and much of the initial satire of Hollywood excess seemed lost in the process. Stiller still seems to be working out how much he wants to include crude humor in his movies.