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 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