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Thursday, October 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 64.0° F  Overcast
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There's Something About Mary
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While watching There's Something About Mary, Peter and Bobby Farrelly's Rabelaisian romantic comedy, I was reminded of a gross-out joke that helped get me through sixth grade. If you're currently drinking something through a straw, you may want to thoroughly gulp it down before reading on. Okay, here goes: Why did the ethnic-male-of-your-choice throw his underpants against the wall?

Give up?

Answer: To see if they'd stick.

That's right, folks, it's going to be one of those reviews, and not just because the Farrelly brothers--who appear to have named their first film, Dumb and Dumber, after themselves--are building their entire careers around throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. On top of that, as often as not, they're throwing things most of us wouldn't even admit to owning. For the shock jocks of contemporary movie comedy, underpants would be a step up.

There's Something About Mary is also a step up, if you ask me. Dumb and Dumber, though often hysterical, was the cinematic equivalent of lighting a fart. And Kingpin, the Farrellys' sophomore (sophomoronic?) film, was the cinematic equivalent of failing to light a fart. But this one's different. It's more...adult. In fact, I'd say it's half-adult, half-child. In what may be the start of something big in American humor, There's Something About Mary combines a screwball comedy with a spitball comedy. To understand what I mean, simply imagine Cary Grant, in Bringing Up Baby, meeting Katharine Hepburn at the door with a large gob of bodily fluid hanging from his earlobe.

I'd like to talk about the screwball comedy first. Ben Stiller plays an average guy named Ted Stroehmann, who, when the movie opens, is a high school nerd with a mouthful of braces and hair that wanders around his head, like a lost groundhog. Almost unbelievably, Ted manages to land a date to the prom with Cameron Diaz's Mary Jenson, a perky blond who's the kind of girl they name movies after. But, on the big night, Ted hurriedly zips up the zipper on his tan-and-taupe tux, slice-and-dicing half the family jewels in the process. Thirteen years later, though he hasn't seen her since, Ted still thinks...there's something about Mary. And so, he sets out to find her, even hiring a shady private investigator (Matt Dillon) to help him.

Basically, it's your standard boy-gets-girl, boy-almost-loses-penis, boy-gets-girl romantic-comedy plot, to which the Farrellys have added a quarter-dozen subplots involving the other men in Mary's life--most amusingly, Dillon's Pat Healy, who falls in love with the woman he's supposed to be handing over to Ted and, through hook and crook, almost succeeds in sweeping her off her feet. Although it has little to do with the romantic-comedy part of the movie, Dillon makes a bid for cinematic immortality when he French-kisses a dog named Puffy as part of what I believe is movie history's first instance of interspecies CPR. When that doesn't work, the audience practically shouts "Clear" as Dillon applies the frayed ends of a lamp cord to Puffy's chest.

There are other scenes I won't forget for a while, most of them involving bodily fluids and bodily solids. What will come to be known as "the zipper scene" is a gross-out classic--a lesson in pain (Ted's) and pleasure (ours) that, by cramming a small army into the bathroom with Ted, pays homage to the cabin scene in the Marx brothers' A Night at the Opera. Bobby Farrelly has called There's Something About Mary "a cross between When Harry Met Sally and Blazing Saddles." I'd call it a cross between When Harry Met Sally and a Three Stooges marathon, with Ted on the receiving end of most of the slapstick. When Puffy, cranked out on speed, makes a beeline for Ted's crotch, the movie is showing us where to look for its funny bone.

Bodily-fluid and bodily-solid humor have been around at least since Aristophanes, and it's always been considered the lowest of the low--i.e., for true vulgarians. The thing is, we're all vulgarians. ("Vulgar," from the Latin "vulgaris," for "of the mob.") All my friends are, anyway. And the Farrellys seem to recognize that, in the realm of the fart joke, there are good fart jokes and bad fart jokes, and that the good fart jokes take skill and effort. What may offend more viewers than the peepee-and-poopee material is the PC-or-not-PC material, which targets the mentally challenged, the physically challenged, gays, women, you name it. Like a sixth-grader, the movie is both rude and crude, and some of you may want to stay at home.

I'm glad I didn't, but I give a lot of the credit for that to Stiller, who creates a character at once pathetic and sympathetic. Stiller's not afraid to look dumb--real dumb. On the other hand, he also kind of looks like Daniel Day-Lewis. The combination makes him a fetching romantic-comedy hero, a true heir to Cary Grant. Stiller grounds the movie and makes everybody else seem funnier than they actually are. Whenever he's not around, There's Something About Mary starts coasting downhill. And, even with him around, the movie runs out of gas three-quarters of the way through--a sorry thing for a scatological movie to run out of. Before that, though, the whole thing's like a breath of...well, not fresh air, exactly.

Let's just say it sticks to the wall.

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