Watching the coming attractions at a beach theater two summers ago, I saw back-to-back trailers for upcoming comedies, and was struck by their differences. The mild, sorta-amusing one for Tamara Jenkins’ The Slums of Beverly Hills was completely clobbered by the three-minute laff riot advertising the Farrelly brothers’ There’s Something about Mary, which was flat-out hilarious and had the audience screeching with laughter from first until last. Which was the better, funnier movie? Well, that was obvious, right?
Not really. As it turned out, I really liked Slums of Beverly Hills, a modest but richly idiosyncratic comedy of the sort that people discover on tape and go, “This is great–how come I never heard of it?” The answer in part is that its humor is subtle and solidly based on character. It has funny scenes and passages and moments, not knee-slapping gags. It can’t be summed up in a punchy trailer.
The thing that shocked me about Something about Mary, on the other hand, is that every single funny thing in the movie was in the trailer. Literally. If you’ve seen both, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. Ben Stiller’s bad wig and giddy embarrassments, Matt Dillon’s teeth, Cameron Diaz’s Dippity Do substitute, the dog flying out the window: They’re all there in the preview. If you’ve seen the trailer and expect the film to be crammed from start to finish with the same kind of funny stuff, you’re likely to be disappointed, because you’ve already seen the funny stuff–all three minutes of it slammed into a mini-movie that’s undeniably sidesplitting.
The other 100 or so minutes of Mary are often mind-bogglingly dull and inept. Clearly, the Farrelly Brothers have one major talent: concocting gags, usually of the lewd ‘n’ crude variety, that make you drop your popcorn or fall out of your seat laughing. Just as clearly, they have a severely underdeveloped sense of what comes between the gags. You can have a pretty good nap waiting for some of their movies’ laughs.
In some senses, the Farrellys are the logical outcome of a marketing system that bases everything on the 30-second TV spot, which is an even more condensed version of the three-minute trailer. And of course, it’s here that Hollywood’s contempt for its audience, and that audience’s corruption by TV’s attention-deficit mentality, can seem most pronounced. Yet the Farrellys aren’t really typical of Hollywood. The major studios would generally deploy squadrons of writers to assure that that there are not yawning stretches of tedious terrain between the good yuks. The Farrellys earned the right to do things their own way when their first movie, Dumb and Dumber, went through the roof. Now they rise or fall on their own inspiration, and have no one to blame if the soufflé goes plop.
Each of their films is a fairly simple gamble: If those three minutes of gags are truly, gut-bustingly great, then most viewers will forgive the tepid and clumsy exposition that connects them. If, on the other hand, the gags are even a few degrees shy of superlative, then the dull patches will drag down the whole to the point that people won’t run home and call their friends to recommend the movie through still-drying tears of mirth.
In Me, Myself and Irene, they lose the gamble, but not horribly so. In fact, the film can boast a bit more consistency than the Farrellys have shown before; its dead patches aren’t quite as dead, and some of the middling-funny bits are actually quite good. But the high points aren’t as high–the laugh-o-meter seldom plunges deep into the red–and that makes all the difference. The movie swats doubles and triples in a ballpark where, ultimately, only home runs count.
Still, it’s hard to dislike zestily lowbrow filmmakers who so casually and decisively distance themselves from Hollywood by living and working in Rhode Island, where most of Irene was shot. Yet a certain degree of cultural cluelessness seems to come with that bucolic remove, if this movie’s apparent stab at sociological commentary is any indication. Its story has Jim Carrey–star of the Farrelly’s inaugural hit–as longtime Rhode Island state trooper Charlie Baileygates, a simmering if unlikely cauldron of racial ressentiment.
Two decades back, it seems, Charlie was a beaming young bridegroom who swept his bride off to his waterside cottage only to find his bliss immediately squashed by their limo driver, a liveried African-American dwarf. When Charlie asked, “Do you people accept checks?” the driver took it as a racial insult and started beating him about the shins. Charlie’s efforts to dispel the racial inference only made matters worse; the dwarf thought his size was being dissed.
Happily, Charlie’s bride was able to stop the violence, but at a cost. The driver turned out to be a moonlighting professor from Brown (a perfect touch, you have to admit) whose large intellect worked like an aphrodisiac on the sensibility of Mrs. Baileygates. When the newlyweds’ triplets are born, they are quite noticeably black.
Cut to 17 years later. Charlie’s wife has run off with the brainy dwarf, leaving him with three hulking black sons who have the intellects of Einsteins and the vocabularies of rap-music thugs. Charlie loves them dearly and in general has long since stopped resisting his lot in life, and that’s precisely the problem: He’s so nice, apologetic and accommodating that everyone in town treats him like a doormat. For a community authority figure, it’s a serious handicap.
One day, he swallows one insult too many and just snaps. Out of his strangled id pops Hank, a guttural, drawling alter ego who slaps people around and takes absolutely no guff from anyone. For all intents and purposes, this is where the curiously retrograde and poorly articulated racial-resentment theme of Irene ends. What the Farrellys have wrought is no species of satire; it’s a split-personality comedy of a fairly familiar and predictable sort.
Into this obvious premise eventually strolls the eponymous Irene (Renee Zellweger), who’s on the lam from her mob boyfriend and his death-dealing goons, yadda yadda. The film’s remaining hour-plus, as anyone who’s seen a previous Farrelly movie can’t help but anticipate, is a chase caper with regular stops for gross-out jokes and Irene’s dithering over whether she’s with Hank or Charlie, and whether she’s just maybe falling in love with one (or both) of them.
For Carrey, the movie inevitably comes off as a backward step. Since Dumb and Dumber he’s grown remarkably as a performer, taking on such risky and rewarding projects as The Cable Guy (a very underrated film), Man on the Moon and the brilliant Truman Show. Here, it’s like he’s been sent back to elementary school. He’s funny and impressively skillful at demarcating the two faces of Baileygates, but so what? We know he can do it, and so does he; there are no surprises at any turn. Ditto, to some extent, with Zellweger, who has a sure comic knack and loads of natural charm, but who’s not asked to stretch to the zany, cartoonish heights that Cameron Diaz reached so memorably in Something about Mary.
The Farrellys’ trademark gags, meanwhile, concern such things as dog poop, a dying cow, dildos and a chicken whose head gets lodged in a singularly unfortunate place. Barnyard humor, to be sure. If it were only a bit more unexpected and eye-popping, the brothers would no doubt have another huge hit on their hands. But the season’s truly funny low comedy is Todd Phillips’ Road Trip, a fresher version of the Farrellys’ stock in trade. Me, Myself and Irene feels a bit old hat in comparison. But you probably knew that already: The trailer isn’t that funny.
At this point in the summer, the critic should admit that his reactions are perhaps much different from the general viewer’s due to a seasonal professional peril: dumbness fatigue.
John Singleton’s Shaft, a revival of the old blaxploitation series with Samuel L. Jackson playing the nephew of the character created by Richard Roundtree, is a big, flashy, expertly made action comedy that will probably be a huge hit. If I’d seen it in February, I might count myself among its fans. But after too many recent movies that offer little beyond peanut-gallery yuks and thrills, I was simply grateful that Shaft isn’t more punishingly formulaic than it is.
I’m a fan of Singleton’s, even though his films have ranged from great (Boyz N the Hood) to good (Higher Learning) to lame (Poetic Justice) to severely problematic (Rosewood). With Shaft, for the first time slumming in the realm of big-budget genre fare, he acquits himself as well as any skilled, versatile craftsman might: The film’s action is well-staged and just brutal enough to give the comedy an unexpectedly bitter edge. The whole enterprise manages a careful balance between gritty urban realism and fanciful, larger-than-life fun, but as an accomplishment, this is still on the level of Dick Tracy.
Granted, the film plays the race card more imaginatively and purposefully than Me, Myself and Irene does. Shaft (who’s essayed with suitable iconic sweep by Jackson) swings into action after a vicious white yuppie (Christian Bale) kills an unsuspecting black bar-goer. But the movie’s real racial charge comes in its No. 2 villain, Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez.
Hernandez is played by Jeffrey Wright in a performance that’s flat-out astonishing on two levels. First, it’s an over-the-top, crotch-grabbing caricature of the sort that you can’t imagine Hollywood countenancing in a black character nowadays. (Have Hispanics joined Arabs as a minority that the major studios feel safe in ridiculing?) Second, Wright’s work in this dubious role is so brilliant that it effectively steals the movie from everyone else–lock, stock and two smoking barrels.
Last year, I opined that Wright deserved a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil. This year he’s done it again. But will Hollywood risk honoring an extraordinary actor for a role that veers so close to racial insult? Stay tuned.