THERE’S SOME­THING ABOUT THE FAR­RELLYS

The films of the duo who gave us Dumb & Dumber amuse more peo­ple than they of­fend, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

The brothers are caught in a catch 22 of their own mak­ing. They set the stan­dard as pro­gen­i­tors of what be­came known as the gross- out genre of dis­turb­ing or dis­gust­ing com­edy with Dumb & Dumber and There’s Some­thing about Mary . With­out them, for bet­ter or worse, there would be no Amer­i­can Pie , Jack­ass , South Park , Bad Santa , Wed­ding Crash­ers or Bo­rat .

Ad­mit­tedly, An­i­mal House and Peter Jack­son’s Brain­dead pre­ceded them but There’s Some­thing about Mary broke shack­les and re­minded Hol­ly­wood that the bound­aries of com­edy were there to be pushed.

James L. Brooks ( Broad­cast News , The Simp­sons ) se­lects the mas­tur­ba­tion scene from Mary , in which Stiller meets Diaz with se­men hang­ing from his ear, as one that ‘‘ changed movies a lit­tle bit’’. ‘‘ To be re­pulsed one mo­ment and en­chanted the next, that is the gift.’’ Mary re­mains the fifth high­est- gross­ing ro­man­tic com­edy at the North Amer­i­can box of­fice.

Not that ei­ther brother has con­tem­plated how they up­ended film com­edy in the late 1990s. Rather, they con­cen­trated on not hav­ing to top them­selves with ev­ery com­edy.

So they pro­ceeded to soften. Their sweeter films peaked with their 2005 adap­ta­tion of Nick Hornby’s Bri­tish novel about his love of the Arse­nal foot­ball club, Fever Pitch .

But even trans­plant­ing that love to one for the Bos­ton Red Sox and film­ing it dur­ing the base­ball team’s in­cred­i­ble drought- break­ing World Se­ries win in 2004 wasn’t enough to ar­rest what ap­peared to be a grow­ing ir­rel­e­vance. The movie au­di­ence, at least, seemed to want out­ra­geous come­dies from the duo, not cute ro­mances.

Even by their stan­dards, The Heart­break Kid is an ar­rest­ing lurch back to test­ing the lim­its. That’s clear with a throw­away sight gag in­volv­ing a Mex­i­can mule and the frank de­pic­tions of women en­joy­ing sex.

‘‘ No, I don’t sit down and think let’s outdo how coarse we’ve been,’’ Peter says. ‘‘ But The Heart­break Kid is a sex com­edy and we haven’t

THE Far­relly brothers, Bobby and Peter, are adept at fend­ing off slings and ar­rows. They’re even bet­ter at send­ing them into the cin­ema au­di­ence. Since stum­bling into cin­e­matic con­scious­ness in 1995 with Dumb & Dumber , the US writ­ing- di­rect­ing duo has pro­ceeded to throw cream pies at con­ven­tion, of­fend sen­si­bil­i­ties and ar­guably re­ju­ve­nate film com­edy.

Cer­tainly, The 40- Year- Old Vir­gin and Knocked Up’s writer- di­rec­tor Judd Apa­tow would not be rid­ing high in Hol­ly­wood com­edy if not for the bum­bling grace of the Far­rellys be­fore him. ‘‘ If we hap­pen to take any credit for Judd, I’d be very happy be­cause he’s right in the zone at the mo­ment,’’ Bobby says.

While the brothers are not prone to in­tro­spec­tion, Peter has his mo­ments when dis­cussing their crit­ics, much to Bobby’s cha­grin. And, boy, have there been crit­ics. Their plots in­vari­ably de­mand crit­i­cism sight un­seen.

The Ringer was about an im­poster pos­ing as a Spe­cial Olympics ath­lete; Stuck on You was a com­edy about con­joined twins ( Matt Da­mon and Greg Kin­n­ear); Me My­self and Irene was a com­edy about mul­ti­ple per­son­al­ity dis­or­der; Shal­low Hal had Jack Black mak­ing jokes at the ex­pense of Gwyneth Pal­trow in a fat suit; and King­pin was merely low­brow.

Only There’s Some­thing about Mary and Fever Pitch have been im­mune from knee- jerk crit­i­cism, even if Mary con­tained ar­guably the most out­landish sight gag in cin­ema his­tory, Cameron Diaz sport­ing a hairdo set by se­men.

Their latest film, The Heart­break Kid, is no dif­fer­ent. Ben Stiller, the ac­tor who saw some­thing in Mary, stars as hap­less honey­mooner Ed­die who falls for a re­sort guest af­ter re­al­is­ing his new wife, Lila, is mad­den­ingly in­com­pat­i­ble. At first blush, it screams misog­yny.

Then there’s the small thing of pil­fer­ing the ti­tle of the 1972 Neil Si­mon semi- clas­sic com­edy on which it’s based. Peter knew that de­ci­sion would mis­fire. ‘‘ I love our movie and I don’t think we’ve had a drub­bing like this since Dumb & Dumber but re­ally it’s be­cause we used the idea,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m so pissed ( off) be­cause I begged ( the stu­dio) not to call it The Heart­break Kid . It was never in­tended to be a re­make.’’ done that be­fore. It’s an out­right sex com­edy and there haven’t been a lot of them, at least in Amer­ica. The last one was Ev­ery­thing You Al­ways Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask ( 1972, Woody Allen).’’

Therein lies the rub. The Far­relly brothers are again out of step with main­stream Hol­ly­wood. This time though, they’re kick­ing against the pricks with a prick, so to speak. If they were to utilise their hu­mour in other ways, per­haps they would be ac­cepted, Bobby says.

‘‘ You can chop a guy’s head off, stick your hand down his throat and pull his balls out and peo­ple seem to be OK with it but you show pu­bic hair and peo­ple are writ­ing let­ters. I don’t quite un­der­stand it but it’s a screwy coun­try, that’s all I can say,’’ he sighs.

Peter adds cin­ema is still bound by cau­tion, partly due to the bash­ing you re­ceive if you go out on a limb. The same fate be­fell the orig­i­nal The Heart­break Kid star­ring Cybill Shep­herd and Charles Grodin.

‘‘ Women’s groups are say­ing our new movie is misog­y­nis­tic,’’ he says. ‘‘ Well, you know what, the guy’s an anti- hero! He’s not Clark Kent; not ev­ery­body has to have an up­beat pro­tag­o­nist.’’

Bruce Jay Fried­man, who wrote the orig­i­nal short story on which the movie was based, gave Peter some salient ad­vice. Just say it’s satire and walk away. They can’t.

‘‘ We re­ally saw this as a dif­fer­ent kind of char­ac­ter,’’ Peter says. ‘‘ There’s a cer­tain Hol­ly­wood for­mula where ev­ery­thing has to turn up roses and ev­ery­one’s sweet and nice and we didn’t want to do that.’’

Co­me­dian, broad­caster and di­rec­tor of Bad Eggs , Tony Martin, sees that as the orig­i­nal’s strength. ‘‘ I do worry about this re­make of The Heart­break Kid ,’’ he says. ‘‘ The orig­i­nal is a kind of mas­ter­piece in its own way, with a unique tone and an in­cred­i­ble per­for­mance from Charles Grodin, who makes no at­tempt what­so­ever to ap­pear lik­able in the way de­manded of to­day’s com­edy leads.’’

For all their ex­trem­i­ties, the Far­rellys cre­ate lik­able lead char­ac­ters. They then place them in sit­u­a­tions that may not pro­mote em­pa­thy but do gen­er­ate laughs. Es­sen­tially, Bobby dis­tils their method to that one el­e­men­tary step.

So in There’s Some­thing about Mary Ted’s kind heart is es­tab­lished when he stands up for Mary’s in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled brother War­ren ( W. Earl Brown); Me My­self and Irene ’ s Char­lie ( Jim Car­rey) is a state trooper who main­tains a sunny dis­po­si­tion de­spite con­stant chid­ing; and Stiller’s Heart­break Kid be­gins his ro­mance help­ing Lila ( Malin Ak­er­man) as she is be­ing mugged.

The brothers’ sin­cer­ity al­lows them to get away with a lot. Nev­er­the­less, their method is just as much about the me­chan­ics of au­di­ence in­volve­ment as about any per­sonal com­pas­sion ( al­though it must be said the brothers have an ad­mirable record of work­ing with, and even cast­ing, the men­tally and phys­i­cally dis­abled).

‘‘ If in There’s Some­thing about Mary you don’t like Ben Stiller’s char­ac­ter and you’re not with him when he gets the se­men on his ear, we’re go­ing to lose the au­di­ence,’’ Bobby says.

‘‘ But if they’re with him, if they un­der­stand he’s a nice guy, he did the right thing at cru­cial points, then peo­ple are on board with you and the jokes work that much fun­nier.’’

Nev­er­the­less, it’s still com­edy and the co­me­dian whose ev­ery joke is funny has not yet been dis­cov­ered. When you push jokes as far as the Far­rellys, view­ers are par­tic­u­larly scathing of those that don’t work. Even worse, the cin­e­matic form is un­for­giv­ing of any­thing that doesn’t sat­isfy its strin­gent nar­ra­tive and vis­ual needs for 90 min­utes or more.

Con­se­quently, writer- direc­tors such as the Far­rellys or the Zucker brothers, Jerry and David, who, with Jim Abra­hams, cre­ated Fly­ing High , Top Se­cret and The Naked Gun, strug­gle for crit­i­cal ac­cep­tance de­spite en­ter­tain­ing broad au­di­ences. Their come­dies are not con­sid­ered cin­e­matic. And the in­abil­ity of the Academy Awards process to re­ward com­edy is leg­endary.

This makes There’s Some­thing about Mary an in­cred­i­ble ex­cep­tion, a broad com­edy that was ac­cepted both crit­i­cally and com­mer­cially de­spite es­sen­tially com­pris­ing five up­roar­i­ous set pieces.

Woody Allen may make bet­ter films but his

jokes aren’t funny any more. The Far­rellys have yet to make a truly com­plete film but their jokes are far more in step with to­day’s young film au­di­ence, a fact em­pha­sised by the long- run­ning ap­peal of their films in DVD for­mat.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, crit­ics have slowly fallen off the Far­rellys. The New York Times ’ s A. O. Scott sums up the pre­vail­ing view in the US with his crit­i­cism of their new film. ‘‘ I’ve ad­mired much of the Far­relly brothers’ ear­lier work. At their best — in Shal­low Hal or King­pin , say — they show a rare abil­ity to mix the nasty and the nice, to com­bine hu­mour based in the gross­ness of the body and its func­tions with a sweet, hu­man­is­tic spirit. But that gen­eros­ity seems to have aban­doned them here.’’

Mar­garet Pomer­anz, co- host of ABC television’s At the Movies , ad­mits she’s slightly ashamed to have loved Dumb & Dumber so much. ‘‘ That naughty school­boy hu­mour worked in their ear­lier films and maybe they’re get­ting a lit­tle older and less in touch with their teenage selves,’’ she says. ‘‘ It’s be­com­ing a lit­tle laboured and less joy­ful.’’

‘‘ We can take the punches,’’ Peter sighs. ‘‘ We’re fine with that and that’s the big ad­van­tage of hav­ing two of us, be­cause you do get beat down. If you look crit­i­cally, we’ve been lam­basted from Dumb & Dumber all the way through, but you know what, you don’t write for the crit­ics, you write for your­self and what pleases you and hope­fully finds an au­di­ence.’’

Those au­di­ences have pleased stu­dios. Bobby ad­mits the brothers are given ‘‘ a fair level of au­ton­omy’’, earned af­ter their first film. The stu­dio, New Line Cin­ema, couldn’t com­pre­hend why any­one would see the movie about two kind- hearted buf­foons ( Car­rey and Jeff Daniels). ‘‘ They were just happy to be in busi­ness with Jim Car­rey at the time,’’ Bobby laughs.

The stu­dio wanted cuts, lots of them. It was the Far­rellys’ first film; they were pow­er­less but dogged. ‘‘ We had ab­so­lutely no clout what­so­ever but that’s where there was a big ad­van­tage of hav­ing two of us,’’ Bobby says. ‘‘ We didn’t want to bite the hand that was feed­ing us but at the same time . . . we felt that they didn’t un­der­stand the type of movie we were mak­ing and it was a movie about two dumb guys, it was silly and they were try­ing to make it into some­thing dif­fer­ent.’’

The brothers held their ground. ‘‘ That’s one of the rea­sons we’ve al­ways worked to­gether, we’re stronger be­cause there’s two of us,’’ Bobby says. ‘‘ Ul­ti­mately we’re more loyal to each other than to any­one else.’’

New Line didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate what they had un­til the pre­miere when au­di­ences lapped up this de­par­ture from the comic for­mula. Pre­vi­ous come­dies were led by Ed­die Mur­phy or Bill Murray- type char­ac­ters who were ‘‘ a bit of a smart alec who al­ways knew a lit­tle more than his boss or his drill sergeant’’, Bobby says. The Far­rellys de­lib­er­ately cre­ated, as the ti­tle sug­gested, a dif­fer­ent kind of lead comic char­ac­ter.

‘‘ That took a lit­tle get­ting used to for the stu­dio. Why would you want the lead guy to know less than ev­ery­one else?’’ Bobby says. ‘‘ And we were like, ‘ That’s the hu­mour of it, they’re ne’er- do- wells, they’re stooges, like the orig­i­nal Three Stooges, they’re not smart but that’s OK.’ ’’

The film con­sol­i­dated Car­rey’s sta­tus as the most pop­u­lar co­me­dian of his time. And it be­gan what would be­come the Far­rellys’ con­stant can­ing. They were told Dumb & Dumber was of­fen­sive to stupid peo­ple, King­pin one- armed ten pin bowlers and Shal­low Hal , fat peo­ple.

The then man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of 20th Cen­tury Fox, Robert Slaviero, copped the phone calls when dis­tribut­ing Me, My­self and Irene in Aus­tralia. ‘‘ Some or­gan­i­sa­tions we were con­tacted by told us we should be do­ing some­thing pos­i­tive about schizophre­nia,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was quite per­plexed, to be hon­est.’’

The source of any frus­tra­tion is clear. The two baby boomers, at best, make smart films mas­querad­ing as stupid movies. For all their foibles, the Far­rellys don’t joke about sub­jects with mal­ice.

‘‘ But we’re not de­pen­dent on crit­ics or get­ting Os­cars, our movies aren’t like indie films where you need that crit­i­cal ap­proval to roll,’’ Peter says. ‘‘ I don’t worry too much about it but some­times I wish they were nicer.

‘‘ The one good thing about not be­ing crit­i­cal dar­lings is it does keep you hum­ble. I don’t watch my old movies, you make ’ em and you move on,’’ he adds. ‘‘ But some­times I wake up at night and turn the TV on and one of our old movies is on and I laugh my ass off, just sit there and gig­gle at one of my own movies 10 years later and that makes me pretty happy.’’ The Heart­break Kid opened in Aus­tralia on Thurs­day. David Stratton — Page 23

It’s a joke, stupid: From far left, the Far­relly brothers, Peter and Bobby; flank­ing Matt Da­mon and Greg Kin­n­ear dur­ing film­ing of Stuck on You; Peter Far­relly on the set of The Heart­break Kid; Matt Dil­lon in the 1998 film There’s Some­thing about Mary

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