Published July 1, 1998
In the first paragraph of his review, of Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s movie, There’s Something about Mary, Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post suggests that the picture is not only brilliantly funny but also one in the eye of those carping critics (presumably those with “artistic” pretensions) who don’t believe that “it is enough for a comedy to be funny.” Well, is it? If so, what is the difference between a film and a stand-up routine? The film may contain dramatic situations, but is it or is it not worthy of remark when the dramatic situations are only the excuse for the jokes and have little or no coherence of their own?
Spoiled, no doubt, by a snobbish love of artistry, I tend to think so — which is why I tend to point such things out even at the risk of sounding rather a spoilsport. I don’t deny that the jokes in Something about Mary are often funny, if (usually) crude, as they are in the Farelley brothers’ earlier movies, Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin. But I write for the reluctant moviegoer for whom the spectacle of Ben Stiller getting his wedding tackle caught in his zipper is not quite hilarious enough to tempt him away from a quiet evening spent curled up with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
Mr Stiller’s character is Ted Stroehmann who is first introduced to us as a high school nerd with long hair and braces. He has no luck with girls. When he asks one to the prom she replies distastefully: “If everything else falls apart. . .maybe.” So he is amazed when the radiant Mary (Cameron Diaz) knows his name. “Some of my best friends didn’t know my name,” he marvels. But more wonders are to come. When he comes to the rescue of her retarded brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown), she asks him to the prom. It is when he comes to pick her up in his “tan and taupe” tuxedo that the central comic episode mentioned above occurs.
We flash forward thirteen years. Mary has moved away, but Ted cannot forget her. “Crushes don’t last 13 years, right?” he asks his friend from work, Dom (Chris Elliott). Dom suggests he try to find her and offers the services of another friend from work, Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), who is a sort of sleuth. The unscrupulous Healy goes to look for her and falls in love with her himself, reporting back to Ted that she is fat and unattractive, crippled and the single mother of four children by three fathers. Ted decides that he wants to see her anyway, and the rest of the film consists of his rivalry with Healy, a third suitor calling himself Tucker (Lee Evans, woefully underemployed), the mysterious stalker with a shoe fetish who has been pursuing her since high school and the real life Brett Favre, who appears in a cameo.
You can guess which of these guys gets the girl, but that’s pretty much beside the point, which is to make sure that poor Mr Stiller first gets bashed around a good deal in comical ways. There is a gesture in the direction of a serious theme with its treatment of the romantic daydreams of Mary based on her favorite movie, Harold and Maude (like many beautiful women she has an exaggerated belief in the unimportance of mere physical attraction). But the Farelleys don’t know quite what to do with it, and it is soon forgotten in the hail of genital jokes and Mr Stiller’s comic pratfalls.