Film discussion

Throwback 20: There’s Something About Mary

The late 1990s were something of a golden age for a particular brand of comedy. Ben Stiller was already very comfortable in the genre, with his own TV show as well as appearances in Happy Gilmore and The Cable Guy. The writer/director brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly had brought us Dumb And Dumber and Kingpin, while former model Cameron Diaz was proving to be a great all-rounder on the big screen, cutting her comedy-teeth in The Mask. So when the four of them joined forces with story writers Ed Decter and John J Strauss for 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, the returns were practically predetermined…

We open with awkward high schooler Ted (Ben Stiller), as he inadvertently manages to secure a prom-date with Mary (Cameron Diaz), the girl upon whom everybody has a crush. But when their big night goes spectacularly wrong in short order, the pair drift apart, school ends and we fast-forward thirteen years. Ted is still idly rueing the events of that evening when his friend Dom (Chris Elliott) suggests hiring a private detective (Healy, played by Matt Dillon) to find Mary and check the lay of the land. Ted secures Healy’s services and slowly but surely things pick up, then start to fall apart. Mary still has that magical hold on people she had in high school and all everyone else can do is crash along in her wake. The most embarrassing variety of laughs ensue.

All of this is set against a soundtrack which is a snapshot of 90s slacker-rock. The Dandy Warhols, Push Stars, and Lemonheads are intercut with the on-screen, deadpan interjections of guitar-playing Jonathan Richman and drummer Tommy Larkins, a two-man Greek chorus of fatalistic sarcasm.

So the film (or its first hour, at least) is deceptively sweet, considering the central theme of obsessive stalking and the directors’ penchant for boundary-testing set pieces. The zipper-jamming and hair gel scenes in particular (ironically not the creepiest parts, but we’ll get to that) go on far longer than conventional taste should allow, both carrying a Rian Johnson-esque undercurrent of ‘what’s the worst thing we can put these characters through?‘. And while they defiantly raise their own ante against the arrival of a punchline, both scenes are carried off through the sheer likeability of Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller. While the leads are clearly on the receiving end of the punchlines, the execution somehow doesn’t feel vindictive or exploitative. This would have been a far lesser movie had it been cast with other stars of its era.

Indeed, such is the strength of Diaz and Stiller’s presence that it’s easy to forget that there are some pretty big names in the supporting roster, too. Matt Dillon has a role large enough to elicit an ‘oh yeah, he’s in this isn’t he?‘ upon his first appearance, as does the inimitable Lee Evans. But also holding the backline steady is the mainstay of four Insidious instalments, Lin Shaye, Arrested Development and Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor, and everyone’s favourite stand-up smart-mouth, Sarah Silverman.

Incidentally, a special note must be made here for Harland Williams and the ‘seven-minute-abs’ sketch: almost entirely separate from the rest of the film, narratively speaking, and a textbook piece of absurdist comedy writing. Bravo.

Then, around an hour into the proceedings, the story segues from Ted’s point of view as the besotted protagonist, and starts following Mary more closely. This is, rest assured, completely intentional in both execution and intention. It’s now that we have the script’s previous hints confirmed, learning that Mary has a history of issues with stalker-related behaviour from unwanted admirers, to the point of changing her surname and moving to another city at least once.

The cards continue to stack, and before long each of the named male characters has developed (or rekindled) an unhealthy fixation with Mary, who by now is almost taking this in her stride. And that would be fine if There’s Something About Mary was posited as a pro-feminist piece, with the eponymous character rolling up her sleeves, rolling her eyes at the clowns who surround her and actually making a difference to the outcome of the plot.

But fairly soon, Richman and Larkins’ musical refrain of “there’s something about Mary, that they don’t know” changes in the minds of the audience to “there’s something about Mary, that attracts this kind of weirdo“. And after this, the movie title – when thought about directly – is effectively victim-blaming our heroine for trying to quietly go about her own life. Clearly, Mary must be at fault here – because the film is not called There’s Something About Men.

And as much as the stalkers get some vague level of comeuppance at least, there’s the feeling that the story’s male characters are possibly based on people (or situations) the writers have known, whereas Mary herself is based on someone they dearly wanted to. An almost Weird Science level of wish-listery has gone into assembling this attractive, intelligent, funny, single woman who just wants to drink beer and watch the Superbowl with the guys. By the 90-minute mark, the audience almost becomes complicit in following Mary around as she brushes away desperate advances and pretends not to realise how dreadful most of the dudes around her really are.

Who’s really the butt of the jokes here? Is it a series of guys prepared to repeatedly de-rail their own lives in a bid to get close to a woman who’s clearly not interested? Is it that same woman who’s come to take prolonged sexual harassment in her stride because that’s the price to be paid for being pretty? Or is it the hapless border terrier which gets drugged, electrocuted and set on fire for comic effect? After twenty years, it’s not entirely clear.

But this probably-too-serious take isn’t to undermine what is still a consistently amusing entry in the pantheon of Hollywood’s comedic library. While it hasn’t aged badly, There’s Something About Mary is certainly a product of its time. That’s not necessarily a criticism in itself, but Diaz’s, Stiller’s and the Farrelly’s continued attempts to match this high watermark do it no real favours in the meanwhile.

The brothers would team up again with Cameron for the 2003 TV pilot Blitt Happens (ultimately uncommissioned) and with Ben for 2007’s The Heartbreak Kid. The Farrelly’s cinematic comedy elsewhere has been of varying success, but perhaps it’s 2014’s Dumb And Dumber To as well as a directed segment on the ill-fated Movie 43 which has kept them away from our screens for so long since? Peter Farrelly returns this November with the Deep South drama Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

On the plus-side, a zip-injury will always be funny, as long as it’s happening to someone else. But there’s something about There’s Something About Mary which is not about Mary. Or it shouldn’t be, at any rate…

What do you think? Did the Farrelly brothers spend the 1990s laying the foundations of a sub-genre of comedy, the excesses of which are still being over-built upon to this day? Or has our writer tried to look too deeply into the well, not realising it’s only in fact a shallow puddle, where everything he’s seen is actually a reflection of himself? Let us know in the comments!

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