Saturday 17 February 2018

From the archive: "There's Something About Mary"

One might claim There's Something About Mary as film zero of the current American comedy revival, and way ahead of the curve on the Friends Reunited phenomenon. A writer named Ted (Ben Stiller) attempts in adult life to track down his childhood sweetheart Mary; he finds her in the form of Cameron Diaz, only everybody's fucking with him, and she's surrounded by suitors prepared to play very nasty indeed in the hope of getting into her underwear. You can tell this was going for something different from the studio comedies of the era from the one early scene that makes a mountain (enlisting Mary's parents, the police, a fire truck, an ambulance) out of the molehill of Ted getting his testicles caught in his fly, but also from the way the Farrellys leave Stiller, the nominal hero of the piece, on the sidelines for long stretches of the first half while going in pursuit of some new, generally silly tangent.

Four screenwriters are credited, which may explain why There's Something About Mary often feels like a mishmash of disparate elements, as though the Farrellys had been drafted in to lighten up something that originally played far darker; the emphasis put on the extraneous in places pushes the running time closer to two hours than 90 minutes, another trait of the New American Comedy. Nevertheless, some of the Farrelly formula - irresistible, once upon a time - is established: a faultlessly integrated cast, with disabled characters both grouchy and saintly, a close attention to even minor characters (Lin Shaye's increasingly tanned speedfreak, surely an inspiration for Matt Lucas's Bubbles de Vere from Little Britain; Harland Williams as a suspicious hitchhiker), and image-warping celebrity cameos (former Miami Dolphins quarterback Brett Favre is enlisted as a deus ex machina who nearly steals off with the girl).

The Farrellys look to have taken the film on at least partly as a challenge, trying to meet the demands of the gross-out and date movie crowds alike, and to protect an innocent and pure central relationship from a supporting cast of creeps, weirdos and psychopaths. (One reason Ted is kept off-screen for so long: he's going through a nightmare as black as Griffin Dunne's in After Hours, allowing the directors to establish the very bad things the film's other men will do for love.) Any problems of tone, and the brothers can simply switch scene to sunny Miami, and bring on Jonathan Richman as an unlikely Greek chorus. The magic isn't quite there yet - all the business with the dog (up to the full bodycast) is pretty basic, the plotting gets haphazard towards the end, and I'd still maintain that Stuck on You is the funnier comedy - but it did nobody any harm at the time: Stiller, previously better known internationally as a director (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy) than as a performer, became a bona fide star off the back of it, and Diaz is adorable as the sort of slightly geeky but basically gorgeous sports nut all nerds (and nerdy writer-directors) like to imagine is out there somewhere, just waiting for a nice guy like them to come along.

(March 2007)

There's Something About Mary screens on five tonight at 10.30pm.

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