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Quite Contrary

"There's Something About Mary" wraps a romantic comedy in frat-house humor.

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The new romantic comedy There's Something About Mary, a film by the Farrelly brothers (Dumb and Dumber), has been extravagantly praised by some of my colleagues, but I'm having a hard time warming to it, and I feel like making trouble. What do we want out of romantic comedy, anyway? Romantic comedy is a lovely form, and a fairly flexible one, too. A romantic comedy can be satirical (The Lady Eve, Annie Hall), tender (Moonstruck), farcical (Tootsie); it can be erotic and profane, or fairly rough, and maybe a great many other things as well. But a romantic comedy, I think, needs two things: It needs to convey the sense that a man and a woman are heading irrevocably for one another and for no one else, and further, that these lovers, whatever trouble befalls them, are in a state of grace, even dazzled by fairy dust. And the trouble with the Farrelly brothers is that in order to get a laugh, they dump on everybody and everything. Their fairy dust smells like manure.

Manure, I admit, has its value. It is the value of shock, of breaking taboos, of liberating secret fears. But does gross-out humor -- the Farrelly brothers' specialty -- go with romantic comedy? In a kind of prologue, we meet the hero of the movie, Ted (Ben Stiller), a high-school nerd with braces and a hapless way with girls. By some miracle, Mary (Cameron Diaz) -- the beautiful and kindly Mary, a blonde with soul -- asks him to the senior prom. But when Ted arrives at Mary's house, dressed in a taupe tux, he suffers, in the bathroom, an unspeakable entanglement of his most delicate parts in the zipper of his fly. The police and fire department show up, the whole neighborhood is called in to see this once-in-a-lifetime event, and we get to see it, too -- which, I suppose, is a first in the history of cinema.

After this catastrophe, Ted loses Mary, and thirteen years later, having done very little with his life, he's still thinking about her. The trouble is, Ben Stiller acts as if his privates were still caught in a zipper. He goes too far into bumbling masochism; he makes Ted an unappealing character, a jerk. Audiences will put up with fumbling and pratfalls in a lover, but not with sneakiness and cowardice; they want a lover with something game and determined about him. Otherwise he doesn't deserve the girl.

Ted sends a sleazy insurance investigator, Healy (Matt Dillon), to spy on Mary. And of course Healy falls in love with her too. For a while, Ted is forgotten -- it is the best part of the movie. Matt Dillon has had the incredible good sense to realize that the sluggish diction that was sexy in a 16-year-old boy is the comic equipment of a 34-year-old man. Dillon has become very good at playing sleazeballs. His Healy wears a pencil-line mustache, the one adornment absolutely certain to destroy Matt Dillon's looks, but we can see that Healy thinks it's cool. In order to impress Mary, he tries to pass himself off as an architect and free spirit, but everything he does is just a little off, or even way off -- he wears the wrong clothes, gets his architectural terms backwards, and displays an improper attitude toward the retarded, and Dillon's attempts to retrieve the errors grow more and more desperate. When Healy visits Mary in her apartment, he falls into a misadventure with a dreadful little dog that is on to him. What Matt Dillon does to that dog is one of the wildest and funniest things in recent movie comedy.

While watching this episode, we may feel we're being tested in some way. Do we have the honesty to admit that the abuse of a pesky little dog is funny? And we're tested again by Mary's brother, who is retarded. He's a big sweet guy, but he flies into rages, and wrestles people to the ground, and we're supposed to be able to laugh at him, too. If you don't laugh at him, or at a man on crutches, or at a psychopathic hitchhiker, or at an old woman's withered breasts (shown twice), then you stand accused of hypocrisy, of a craven obeisance to political correctness. And although I laughed at the poor dog, I didn't laugh at these other things.

Haven't any of the movie's fans noticed that the interiors are lit like a TV show, that the staging is generally clumsy? Haven't they noticed that apart from Matt Dillon, most of the actors are unappealing, and that the wonderful Mary, who gets the benefit of Cameron Diaz's good cheer, never observes anything about anyone? The general insensitivity of the atmosphere gets one down after a while. None of these people go together: Friends don't seem like friends, lovers don't seem like lovers. In brief, it's not enough just to have bad taste. You have to have talent, too. Some of the critics write as if bad taste were an actual cause -- as if a blow against p.c. were somehow a victory in itself. But anyone who falls into that trap not only loses his judgment but congratulates himself for far too little.


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