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Ben Stiller

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Movie Review: There's Something about Mary

by Jesse Gale

NEW YORK, 25 November 1998 - Peter and Bobby Farrelly, the directing team responsible for Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, now bring us There’s 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-grader’s diarrhea joke;" "it has polluted the romantic comedy genre;" "it stinks."

The film’s 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 film’s 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 movie’s pratfalls tumble us into a solid core of emotional challenges.

The utter silliness of the movie shouldn’t 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 regulate one’s 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.

Years 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 it’s the audience’s 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 singer’s 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 friends.

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 film’s method and its message. The movie’s eschewal of intellectualism thus clears the way for its sweet-hearted embrace of embarrassing humanity.

One of the film’s most challenging scenes is one in which Tucker, Mary’s 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 isn’t witless to propose that: E. M. Forster did when he wrote Only connect.

The ensemble 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 Ted’s rash-speckled best friend, Dom; wait for his last scenes to get the full flavor of his over-the-top but frighteningly accurate characterization.

Between the skill with which the film executes its daffy slapstick and the unexpected challenges of its depths, it's definitely worth your time. There’s Something about Mary sacrifices wit, perhaps, but at the altar of empathy. Can that be in bad taste?

Photos: courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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