Movie Review: There's
Something about Maryby
NEW YORK, 25 November 1998 - Peter and
Bobby Farrelly, the directing team responsible for Dumb and Dumber
and Kingpin, now bring us Theres Something about Mary,
a movie much more interesting than its buzz would suggest. Along with a
mountain of box office receipts, the film has attracted much snide
commentary: "it has the intellectual value of a third-graders
diarrhea joke;" "it has polluted the romantic comedy genre;"
The films gleefully daffy previews
play up its low humor; each ad is a sight-gag montage of electrocuted
dogs, goo-stiffened coiffures, and the Bugs Bunny-esque dental stylings
of Matt Dillon. And the film's presentation continues in this vein: the
characters are plastic-fantastic and the films palette is Miami
day-glo. Mary seems, then, to confirm our suspicion that
Americans just want crap. The anti-intellectual movement in America
embraces the film; the intelligentsia recoils. But the movie is not only
a flag in the battle over American taste, just as the story is not only
a vehicle for the goofy moments of its ads. Instead, the movies
pratfalls tumble us into a solid core of emotional challenges.
The utter silliness of the movie shouldnt turn viewers away from
its emotionally rigorous material. As Daniel Goleman suggests in his
1995 study,"Emotional Intelligence: "academic
intelligence has little to do with emotional life abilities such as
being able to persist in the face of frustrations...to regulate ones
moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize
and to hope." So much has been made of how little the film demands
our intellect that it's easy to overlook how it tests our "emotional
intelligence"-- our capacity for humane emotional response.
The story is easy to follow. Years ago, Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) was
a "dork" with a desperate crush on the gloriously radiant Mary
Jenson (Cameron Diaz). He wins a prom date with her for defending her
older, mentally retarded brother from a group of cool but callous jocks,
but an unfortunate zipper choice ruins prom night. Already the pattern
of the film is set: dating Mary is the ultimate prize, and how one
empathizes with "goofy bastards" determines success.
later, Ted sends Pat Healey (a detective, played with sleazy perfection
by Matt Dillon) to find Mary so he can renew his courtship. Healey falls
for Mary; everyone falls for Mary; rivalry and mayhem ensue.
But its the audiences place in this story that makes the
film more than a potty-mouthed sit-com. We first see Jonathan Richman
(formerly of Modern Lovers) singing lyrics that introduce Ted's
situation; however, the singers pained, earnest face says more.
Nodding somberly into the camera, Richman addresses us directly,
sympathetically including us in a category with Ted and his geeky
Richman addresses us that way again when he sings: "True
love is not nice, no no/ It brings up hurt from when you were/ Five
years old/ True love is not nice, no no." Richman identifies the
audience with the fools pursuing the dreamy Mary; the film never allows
us to laugh at fools without identifying ourselves with them.
Identifying with "goofy bastards" is in fact the films
method and its message. The movies eschewal of intellectualism
thus clears the way for its sweet-hearted embrace of embarrassing
One of the films most challenging scenes is
one in which Tucker, Marys disabled architect friend, tries to
pick up keys while shaking horrifically on his bandy legs. Are we
supposed to laugh at this? We aren't let off the hook or given easy
answers; the camera lingers over this moment, and the film reprises it
twice more. In this way, Mary presents us with dumb jokes that
challenge our hearts. We are challenged to let go of ironic detachment,
to make way for human connection. Mary says her favorite movie, Harold
and Maude is "just about two people connecting"; Mary
is about that, too. Surely it isnt witless to propose that: E. M.
Forster did when he wrote Only connect.
works well together. Ben Stiller shifts between introspection and
cartoonish physical humor smoothly; Cameron Diaz plays the same likable
character as always, with the same likable results. Chris Elliot steals
the film as Teds rash-speckled best friend, Dom; wait for his last
scenes to get the full flavor of his over-the-top but frighteningly
Between the skill with which the
film executes its daffy slapstick and the unexpected challenges of its
depths, it's definitely worth your time. Theres Something
about Mary sacrifices wit, perhaps, but at the altar of empathy. Can
that be in bad taste?
courtesy of 20th Century Fox
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