By R. Emmet Sweeney
[Photo: Left, “The Heartbreak Kid,” Paramount Pictures, 2007; below, “Dumb & Dumber,” New Line Cinema, 1994]
Bobby and Peter Farrelly, like it or not, are two of the most fascinating American directors of the past two decades. Despite taking routine critical beatings, the brothers have created a unified body of work, elaborating on their pet theme of what constitutes normality ever since Jeff Daniels’ monsoon of a bowel movement in “Dumb and Dumber” (1994). Each successive film follows a remarkably similar trajectory to that debut hit: a social outcast (usually scarred by the loss of a loved one), embarks upon a journey to achieve a goal that will restore their dignity. They fail. After this disappointment, they realize the social norms they’re straining for are bullshit, and their self-respect is restored, if only to spite society-at-large. This pattern is consistent all the way through to “Stuck on You” (2003), and their latest, “The Heartbreak Kid,” looks to continue it by way of a honeymoon road trip.
Then there’s the flood of bodily fluid punch lines that are the core of their comedy those outrages upon the anatomy, semen hair gel or adult breastfeeding, that immediately invalidate any claim to middle-brow respectability. They’ll never be taken as seriously as Judd Apatow whose “Knocked Up” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called an “instant classic,” and which inspired a few think-pieces about the state of American comedy (David Denby’s grumpy “A Fine Romance” in The New Yorker). Apatow is forgiven his vulgarity and birthing sight gags because of his underlying sentimentality, the “serious” way in which he handles the effect of pregnancy on a relationship. The Farrellys aren’t cut that slack, even though their recent work has become increasingly personal and joltingly emotional far more daring, and much more moving than Apatow’s closed-off world of sarcastic young suburbanites.
The key to the Farrellys’ films, as vague as it might sound, is their generosity. It extends from their hiring of friends and family as extras and the use of location shooting in their hometown to the video packages that end each film. “Me, Myself, and Irene” (2000) ends by showing still photos of every actor who was cut out, while “Shallow Hal” (2001) closes with images of all the behind-the-scenes tech workers. These gestures are representative of the democratic way in which the comedies are made (everyone’s encouraged to suggest jokes) and that spirit seeps into the films. The stories consist of a search for this feeling of community as the classic Farrelly character has fallen outside of the proscribed normal lifestyle. In “Dumb & Dumber,” Carrey and Daniels are idiots who break every possible social code because they aren’t aware of them. In “Kingpin” (1996), Roy Munson (Woody Harrelson) is a disgraced (and poor) bowler with a hook for a right hand, while “Irene”‘s Charlie is the town punching bag, a pathetic cuckold that pigtailed girls curse off the street.
One of the major markers of outsider status in their films is mental or physical disability and this makes people nervous. Whether it’s the treatment of schizophrenia in “Irene,” mental disability in “Mary” and “The Ringer” (produced by the Farrellys’ in 2005), or the conjoined twins in “Stuck On You” there’s always the accusation that these people’s disabilities are being laughed at, which is never the case. They are presented without pity or condescension as independent individuals, never defined by their disability, just people with vices and faults of their own. A childhood friend of Peter Farrelly, Danny Murphy, became a quadriplegic after a diving accident, and has appeared in every film since “Kingpin” (1996), and in all of them he plays an acid-tongued bastard flipping the switch that chops off Munson’s ill-fated hand.
The Farrelly hero, after expressing contempt for the status quo, searches for a new community to belong to every film (aside from Hal), arranges this in the form of a journey, either to search for a loved one or to rejuvenate their careers. This pursuit fails (as it does in “Dumb & Dumber,” “Kingpin,” and “Stuck on You”), or succeeds only after the character rejects the social codes he originally hoped to live up to (as in “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal”). In both cases, traditional morality is proven false or overthrown, and the line between normal and abnormal is blurred. New splinter communities are formed or maintained: “Dumb & Dumber”‘s Lloyd and Harry maintain their country of two; “Kingpin” ends with an Amish village forming an alliance with Roy and his girl; Mary’s final group is a circle of obsessives that surround the central couple; “Me, Myself, and Irene” affirms the relationship between Charlie and his bastard children; Hal joins a merry band of Peace Corps volunteers; and “Stuck On You”‘s Walt and Bob end the film in a triumphant shot-countershot that emphasizes their new-found independence while also re-integrating them into their hometown (after nailing a musical number with Meryl Streep).
While the content has remained consistent, the box-office has dwindled. Every film since “There’s Something About Mary” has made less than the previous one, decreasing until “Stuck On You” (their masterpiece) made only $34 million domestically, five times less than Mary. This despite their increasing visual sophistication (“Stuck On You”‘s superb use of the 2.35:1 frame) and emotional delicacy it’s what Peter calls the “sensitve trilogy” (“Hal,” “Stuck on You,” “The Ringer”) that has tanked the worst. In order to recover their fans, it seems, they need to restore a higher joke-to-drama ratio, or at least return to more bankable stars than Jack Black, Kinnear-Damon and Johnny Knoxville. Their next film following the trilogy, “Fever Pitch” (2005), was a contract job for the first time they had no input into the screenplay or casting and it has little relevance to the rest of their work. Their stock has fallen to the point where their name isn’t even used in most promotional material for “The Heartbreak Kid.” The success of “Kid,” their most commercial sounding (and R-rated) film in years, may determine how much freedom they have in the future and may be the deciding factor in whether their long-gestating Three Stooges project (with Russell Crowe as Moe!) gets out of the planning stages. Here’s to hoping “Kid”‘s a blockbuster.