Monday 2 November 2020

1,001 Films: "There's Something About Mary" (1998)

Film zero of the millennial American comedy revival, and way ahead of the curve on the Friends Reunited phenomenon,
There's Something About Mary found a writer named Ted (Ben Stiller) striving in adult life to track down his childhood sweetheart; he finds her in the form of Cameron Diaz, only everybody's screwing with him and she's surrounded by suitors prepared to play nasty just to get inside her underwear. That it was going for something distinct from the other studio comedies of its era can be spied early on from the colossal mountain it makes (enlisting Mary's parents, the police, a fire truck and an ambulance) out of the molehill of Ted's catching his scrotum in his flies, and from the way the Farrelly brothers leave our notional hero on the sidelines for long stretches of the first half, while pursuing some new, generally silly tangent. Four screenwriters are credited, which explains why There's Something About Mary often feels like a mishmash of disparate elements, or as if the Farrellys had been drafted in at the last minute to lighten up a project initially conceived as far darker in tone; the emphasis placed on the extraneous pushes the running time up closer to two hours than ninety minutes, another trait of the New American Comedy.

Nevertheless, the Farrellys' broadly winning formula was established herein: fully integrated casts, with disabled characters both grouchy (the fellow Ted helps move) and saintly (Mary's kid brother Warren, played by W. Earl Brown), a close attention to even minor characters (Lin Shaye's increasingly tanned speedfreak, surely some inspiration for Little Britain's Bubbles deVere; an uncredited Harland Williams as a suspicious hitchhiker), image-warping celebrity cameos (here, former Miami Dolphins quarterback Brett Favre as a deus ex machina who almost makes off with the girl). The Farrellys appear to have taken the film on as a challenge, trying to meet the demands of the gross-out crowd within the confines of the romantic comedy, and protect a central relationship that's essentially innocent from a supporting cast of sleazeballs, stalkers and psychopaths. (One reason Stiller is kept off-screen for so long: he's enduring an ordeal almost as nightmarish as Griffin Dunne was put through in After Hours, and it allows the filmmakers to establish the very bad things the movie's other men will do for Mary's attention.) Any problems of tone, and the brothers simply switch scene to sunny Miami, and bring on no less than Jonathan Richman as an unlikely Greek chorus. The magic isn't quite there yet - all the business with the dog (up to the bit with the full bodycast) is pretty basic, the plotting gets haphazard towards the end, and I'd still maintain 2003's Stuck on You was scene-for-scene funnier - but it did nobody any harm at the time. Stiller, previously better known as a director (Reality Bites, The Cable Guy), became a bona fide star off the back of his especially game showing, and Diaz is pretty 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.

There's Something About Mary is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox, and to rent via Prime Video.

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