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Non-Review: There’s Something About Mary

There’s Something About Mary is easily one of my favourite comedies of all time. I don’t like to think I’m especially crass or low-brow, and I don’t have much love for the work of the Farrelly Brothers outside this film (though Dumb and Dumber was charming while Kingpinwasn’t all bad). However, there’s just something so wonderfully chaotic and random about the wit on display in the film, which manages to encompass old-fashioned physical slapstick, situation comedy, grossout humour, character-based laughs and all manner of subversive charm. All those elements and styles are at play in the film, under the watchful eye of the Farrelly Brothers conducting: they know it would be too easy to hit a bum note, but instead they manage to keep pretty much everything playing in symphony.

Had me hooked from the start...

I remember on first watching the film and being genuinely shocked by some of the content. Not that I was a prude, and not that it wasn’t hilarious, just that – at the time the movie was produced – it was rare to see that sort of foul humour in a relatively mainstream romantic comedy. I look back it now, and it seems practically tame when measured against most modern comedies. However, it remains hilarious, which I think is a large part of the film’s success: despite the lowest common denominator accusations you could make about any of the jokes, it’s still hilarious. They are funny, and they work.

If you look at any of the many iconic and memorable sequences in the film, they play very well off core comedic principles. As hilarious as the mix up with the “frank and beans” near the start might be, it’s the constant public humiliation (“you gott see this!”) that really makes the sequence work more than the idea of the physical mishap itself. The wrestling match between Ben Stiller and the dog might push things a little bit further than usual when doing a scene like that, but it’s the type of physical joke that could easily have found its way into a silent twist – the amphetamines just give the movie a modern twist.

Shoe off!

It’s this sort of surreal timelessness, coupled with politically incorrect jokes and a little bit of smut, which really makes the movie work so well. The material is remarkably classic, just played out by especially talented actors. The sequence where the lead and the local police have a hilarious misunderstanding (he thinks they’re talking about something different than they actually are) is the type of situational comedy that you could find almost anywhere, but it’s Ben Stiller who sells that bit. Similarly, the sleazy private investigator is a one-note classic comedy character, but Matt Dillon has such genuine fun in the role with his cheesy little mustache that it’s hard not to give in to the character’s charms.

The soundtrack displays a similar sort of cocktail of classic material filtered through a slightly unexpected direction. The movie is narrated through an old-fashioned love ballet, but it’s performed by Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. The always fantastic Build Me Up Buttercupplays over the end credits, but the entire cast and crew of the film are miming along, with chorus lines composed of butch prisoners and gruff police officers. There’s a genuine sense of charm and whimsy to everything that’s a little bit infectious.

"We got a bleeder!"

It’s possible to argue that the movie really works because it refutes a great deal of cynicism that sort of drifted into these kinds of movies. Despite the relatively immature humour and the dysfunctional cast, it’s a very romantic story about a decent guy who has been pining for a girl for decades (after a freak accident separates them), and who decides to try to find his one true love. The film is smart enough to throw around a more cynical perspective (labelling Ted a “stalker” from time to time), but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about two romantic people who are caught in the middle of a variety of manipulations. It’s very hard to find a reason to dislike either Ted or Mary, and they are both decent people. If a romantic comedy can get you to root for its two leads, it is doing something right. And perhaps I’m just a big old romantic at heart.

As with most comedies, I think that the key is the cast. You don’t have to have big name stars, but I think that strong actors are probably more essential for comedies than any other genre – if only because humour needs a great deal of help to transition to the screen, while clever thrillers and historical dramas might be able to compensate with a sharp script. Both Stiller and Diaz are great in the lead. I don’t think Diaz has been better, and she makes the most of Mary, a relatively shallow plot device. Diaz plays her with a flirty charm that is grounded, but also makes it possible to see how men can be drawn to her.

A bit of a (private) dick...

However, Matt Dillon nearly steals the film as a sleazy private detective. His attempts to woo Mary using information gleaned from overheard conversations and intercepted phonecalls are genuinely hilarious, because the guy is at once a complete sleazeball idiot, but also some sort of skilful manipulator. Dillon plays the part perfectly, and the guy manages to be a genuinely unlikable comedic foil and a scene-stealing supporting character at the same time. Lee Evans is great in a small role here, as is Chris Elliot. And it’s odd to see Sarah Silverman in an early role as one of Mary’s friends, along with the coroner from CSI: Miami.

There’s Something About Mary is a great comedy, because it’s an honest-to-goodness funny film, that doesn’t count on crass humour to carry it all the way home. It realises that there has to be more to a film – some of it is an old-school comedy charm, and the rest is a wonderfully talented cast. There’s definitely something about There’s Something About Mary.

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