Wednesday July 15, 1998

     The Farrelly brothers can't help it, they get these ideas, cheerfully crude and way over the line. Nothing delights this writing-directing team more than making audiences laugh hard at what conventional good taste says isn't even worth a smile. With "There's Something About Mary," Peter and Bobby Farrelly have hit their own kind of jackpot.
     An outrageous goofball farce, "There's Something About Mary" is a giddy symphony of rude and raucous low humor. Co-directors who shared the writing credit with Ed Decter & John L. Strauss, the Farrellys here show a gift not just for finding humor where others have feared to look but for presenting it in a way that is surprisingly close to irresistible.
     The Farrellys first made a splash with the Jim Carrey-starring "Dumb and Dumber" and the bowling-themed "Kingpin." With "Mary's" story of a woman everyone falls in love with, they display a sharpened ability to make comic situations build and build. Several of the picture's more out-there sequences, like a desperate attempt to electroshock a dog back to life and a man's dreadful accident with a pants zipper, benefit from how laughs are structured to build and build on each other.
     "There's Something About Mary" also displays the Farrellys' most paradoxical quality, their good-natured innocence amid all the bad taste. This enables them to blithely make light of a whole range of potentially offensive comic subjects, like the gaffes of mentally challenged individuals, the pitfalls of masturbation and the travails of people on crutches, without giving major offense.
     The Farrellys have a secret weapon, this time around, in its star, Cameron Diaz. A natural comic talent and a major asset in every film she's been in, from successes like "My Best Friend's Wedding" to misfires like "A Life Less Ordinary," Diaz is irreplaceable here. More than being completely believable as the delight of all eyes, her intrinsic, knockout wholesomeness puts a Good Housekeeping seal on the raunchy proceedings, as well as keeping the film alive during those moments when it raggedly slows down to catch its breath.
     Diaz's co-stars are just as well cast and just as funny, though both come to humor from different starting points. Although Ben Stiller has done drama, he's mostly known for his impeccable comedy work in movies like 1996's "Flirting With Disaster" and his own "Reality Bites." Matt Dillon has been thought of mostly for serious roles, but the growing list of comedies he's improved ("The Flamingo Kid," "To Die For," "In & Out") reveal him to be surprisingly gifted at deadpan humor.
     Working beautifully together, and backed up by comic sidekicks like Chris Elliott, Lin Shaye, Lee Evans and Jeffrey Tambor, this terrific ensemble throws itself into "There's Something About Mary." No matter how far-fetched and preposterous the film's plot becomes, the cast's ability to treat ridiculous situations with complete seriousness creates a whole lot of laughter.
     "Mary" starts with a flashback to a Rhode Island high school in 1985 and an astonishingly geeky Ted Stroehmann (Stiller), a loser with more metal on his teeth than the Man in the Iron Mask.
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     Stepping in to save the mentally handicapped Warren (W. Earl Brown) from a bully, Ted gains stature in the eyes of Warren's gorgeous sister, Mary Jenson (Diaz), the school's blond princess. In the twinkling of an eye they are planning a senior prom together until an ill-timed errant zipper changes everything.
     Cut to 13 years later. Ted is a writer living in Providence (the Farrellys' hometown) and still pining for Mary. His best friend, Dom (Elliott), suggests he hire a private detective to track her down, and even suggests a co-worker, Pat Healy (Dillon), who turns out to be a lowlife ladies' man with a thin mustache and a roving eye.
     Pat agrees to search for Mary and, in fact, tracks her down in Miami, where she's nominally an orthopedic surgeon but mostly plays golf and looks in on brother Warren. Completely smitten, Pat lies to Ted about what he's discovered and moves to Florida. Using a technique Woody Allen's character employed in "Everyone Says I Love You," but to much more comic effect, he eavesdrops on Mary, finds out her likes and dislikes, and attempts, against hellacious odds, to turn himself into Mr. Right.
     Of course, Ted finds out what's happened and heads to Miami himself. His trip, though, is far from smooth, and, in a fine example of crossed-wires comedy, he ends up in prison facing some serious charges before he can continue his romantic quest.
     Though "There's Something About Mary" relishes finding opportunities for humor where more prudent filmmakers see roadblocks of political correctness, the Farrellys don't neglect the chance for quick, throwaway moments of verbal and visual wit. And they make excellent use of singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, who, along with drummer Tommy Larkins, provide a blank-faced musical Greek chorus that periodically comments with bleak irony on Ted's woeful plight.
     Bursting with antic ideas and vulgar energy, "Mary" has enough enthusiasm left over to inspire a crazed sequence that runs alongside the closing credits, where the cast sings the rock standard "Build Me Up, Buttercup" while doing the kinds of manic things only the Farrellys could dream up. It isn't high-toned, but it will certainly make you laugh.


There's Something About Mary, 1998. R, for strong comic sexual content and language. A Farrelly Brothers Movie, released by 20th Century Fox. Directors Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly. Producers Frank Beddor & Michael Steinberg and Charles B. Wessler & Bradley Thomas. Executive producers Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly. Screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly. Cinematographer Mark Irwin. Editor Christopher Greenbury. Costumes Mary Zophres. Music Jonathan Richman. Art director Arlan Jay Vetter. Visual consultant Sidney J. Bartholomew Jr. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Cameron Diaz as Mary Jenson. Matt Dillon as Pat Healy. Ben Stiller as Ted Stroehmann. Lee Evans as Tucker. Chris Elliott as Dom.