Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On DVD: "There's Something About Mary"

There’s Something About Mary is one of those films that’s hard to objectively critique this far removed from its original release; it has so totally influenced every mainstream studio comedy that followed it that it can be difficult to view it clear-eyed. It’s also a film that comedy fans may have burned themselves out on at the time; freshness, spontaneity, and surprise are a key element of all good comedies, so when you’re viewing a film like this for the upteenth time, fully aware of what’s coming next, the flaws become more apparent.

And there are flaws, make no mistake. Mary’s directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have never been noted for their brevity; the theatrical version of the picture runs just under two full hours, a pretty expansive length for a pop comedy. Most of the disposable material is in the first and second act (our hero Ted and his long-lost love Mary don’t even reconnect until well past the one-hour mark), but the sheer length of the film causes us to get antsy in the home stretch, when it should be taking off. The third act is also overly cluttered, with too many characters making too many reveals (and too, too much Chris Elliot). And repeat viewings make it more and more clear that Mary, though well-played by Cameron Diaz, is too much of a construction; it’s one thing to create a “perfect woman” who’s hot and sweet and smart and rich, but must she also end a date by asking, “Hey you wanna go upstairs and watch SportsCenter?” In an obvious moment like that, it feels like the script is stacking the deck.

But these are all relatively minor irritations. My more analytical viewing, eleven years after Mary’s theatrical release, confirmed that the Farrellys (along with co-screenwriters Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) truly did capture lightening in a bottle with the picture; it managed to perfectly combine the R-rated sex romp with the romantic comedy—the sticky and the sweet, if you will. It was a combination that created bang-up box office; Mary was a rare movie that opened respectably and then grew to monster numbers over time, one of the last honest-to-God “word of mouth” movies in recent memory. It had something for everyone—guys liked the dirty jokes and were hot for Cameron Diaz, girls identified with Diaz and dug the genuinely sweet relationship between her and Ben Stiller.

The film somehow got that balance exactly right, in a way that astonishingly few of its “gross-out” copycats (Tomcats, American Pie, Van Wilder) did; even the Farrellys struggled to recapture the Mary magic, striking out with films like Me, Myself, and Irene, Stuck on You, and their ill-fated Stiller re-teaming, The Heartbreak Kid. What happened this time? It’s hard to say. Part of it is the intangible quality of good comedy—Mary is just plain funny, from the beautifully constructed zipper-in-the-bathroom scene (and its horrifying “money shot”) to the cringe-worthy (but very funny) hijinks with poor Fluffy the Dog to Harland Williams, who comes in out of left field with a head-scratching, odd performance and damn near steals the picture.

But Mary’s most famous scene is the notorious “hair gel” sequence; I’ll assume that everyone knows the joke (and I couldn’t easily replicate it on this family website anyway). That scene contains, I think, a lot of why Mary resonates and those other pictures don’t. The Farrellys made some smart casting decisions—they went for actors who could be funny instead of traditional comedians. As a result, Diaz’s Mary and Stiller’s Ted are fully-formed characters (even underneath the goofy wigs and braces of the opening scenes); we identify with them, as we would in a more conventional rom-com. So when Mary notices Ted’s “hair gel,” we’re embarrassed for him, but we’re not laughing at him—or her, when we get that great cutaway of what said gel has done to her hair. In fact, we’re laughing in spite of ourselves, because we like the characters so much, and we’re silently hoping that the scene doesn’t pay off in an awkwardly traditional way (i.e., with Mary calling Ted out and laughing at him). And when it doesn’t, we’re thankful; we’re not just with Ted and Mary, but we’re with the movie, for treating them right.

That identification is what Mary has over the films that followed it, the gross-out movies that knew the words but not the music. When Stiffler downs that DNA beer in American Pie, we don’t react with much more than disgust—the circumstances that contaminated it are far-fetched, and we don’t like the guy, so we don’t have any investment in what happens to him, and so it’s just a gross gag and nothing else. Nothing is just gross in There’s Something About Mary (okay, maybe Magda topless in the window); as stupid as it sounds, the gags and the comic set pieces are in service of the story, and that is what makes all the difference.

The first time I saw There’s Something About Mary, it was with a radio-assembled pre-release preview audience, and their laughter took the roof of the joint; we knew next to nothing about the picture, so its every wild bit and manic turn took us by uproarious surprise. Obviously, you can only see a film like this with that kind of fresh eye once, but Mary still holds up; its comic bits still play, its romance is as effectively rendered as ever. If you’ve somehow managed to elude the film for the last eleven years, then by all means, pick it up. But fans who own that 2003 collector’s edition can probably keep hold of it; with no new extras and little noticeable improvement in picture or sound, that version of this talky comedy should continue to serve you just fine.

Obviously, "There's Something About Mary" is available on DVD and has been for quite some time; it was released on Blu-ray disc back on May 12th.

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