Outsiders Living the American Dream: A Farrelly Brothers Retrospective

In 1994, New Line Cinema released Dumb and Dumber, directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Along with Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask (both 1994), it helped launch Jim Carrey’s career, but also launched the Farrelly brothers’ career and helped define the next fifteen years of mainstream comedies in Hollywood.

Since then, the Farrelly brothers have tried every comedy possible with mixed results. At best, these comedies allow the audience to laugh at otherwise horrifying ideas about society. At worst, they come across as sophomoric and tasteless.

Background

Every Farrelly brothers’ movie focuses on a hopeless romantic that society considers freakish. This freakishness can come in the form of a physical disability (Kingpin (1996), Stuck on You (2003)), mental affliction (Me, Myself & Irene (2000), Shallow Hal (2001)), perversion (Hall Pass (2011)), or even a fandom (Fever Pitch (2005)). However, unlike other films, these characters struggle to achieve their version of the American dream due to their freakishness. Oftentimes this consists of the lead character winning over the women of his dreams. At the same time, they usually also have a more practical best friend or brother, whom society considers equally freakish. This friend tries to help them out, even if that seems impossible.

Dumb and Dumber still remains one of their most experimental film in that it follows two outlandish characters who do not get what they want in the end. The whole plot comes as an excuse to create comedy set pieces. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien (1979), Total Recall (1990)) found it so grating that he included it as an example of how not to write a comedy in his book Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure and compared it to the Jerry Springer show.

After Dumb and Dumber came Kingpin starring Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid, and Bill Murray. Unlike Dumb and Dumber, this film has a happier ending and a shamelessly corny tone that makes it very enjoyable. While they have the willingness to make a joke about “milking a bull,” they also will wear their heart on their sleeve. Unfortunately, Kingpin was a financial failure that led them to make There’s Something about Mary (1998), the movie that would define mainstream comedies for the next ten years.

It follows a loner, Ted (Ben Stiller), as he tracks down his high school crush Mary (Cameron Diaz). Like many of their more successful films, it the blend of heart, gross out comedy, and black comedy. One of the factors that I think contributed to the film’s success was the way the movie keeps surprising the audience. You never know when somebody is lying in the movie, whether it be one of the suitors or Mary (“I’m just fucking with you”). In fact, the only somewhat honest character seems to be Ben Stiller’s Ted. The ending of the movie also requires Ted to admit that he and the guys chasing Mary are fundamentally wrong, allowing him to gain the moral upper hand at the end, even if all the other material beforehand suggests that he should not be with her. The Cameron Diaz character also provided inspiration for Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, as she represents a woman created by men for men.

Hollywood used every element from There’s Something about Mary, whether it be the story of a man who travels on an insane odyssey to find a woman (Road Trip (2000), Eurotrip (2004)), the gross out humor (The American Pie series), or the dark humor (One Night at McCool’s (2001), Bad Santa (2003)). Even Family Guy (1999-) started out like a Farrelly brothers’ version of The Simpsons (1989-) before becoming the show it is today. This trend set the career of many of modern comedy filmmakers in motion, including Todd Philips (The Hangover (2009)) and Roger Kumble (Just Friends (2005)). It also set up the Ben Stiller leading man role that he would play in movies like Meet the Parents (2000), Duplex (2003), and Along Came Polly (2005): a decent guy trying to do the right thing in a sea of craziness.

Almost every comedy stole from them before Judd Apatow became the biggest comedy producer on the market, with hits like The Forty-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007) and Superbad (2007). Unlike the Farrelly brothers, Apatow’s films look at people stuck in an arrested adolescence and how they fail to deal with their problems. In fact, the only character that can be considered freakish in the same way is Steve Carrell from The Forty-Year-Old Virgin. Apatow’s films also are based a lot less around wacky set pieces and more around creating as many verbal jokes as possible. They work much more around the improv of movies like Caddyshack (1980) than around slapstick and quirks.

During this time, the Farrelly Brothers directed one movie, Me, Myself, & Irene (2000), which they consider to be one of their weaker films. They also produced two lesser known movies: Outside Providence (1999) and Say It isn’t So (2001). Both were directed by Farrelly Brothers contemporaries: occasional actor Michael Corrente and their first Assistant director J.B. Rogers. Working with a script co-written by the Farrelly brothers, Corrente aimed Outside Providence as more of a nostalgic coming of age story, having previously made the movies like Federal Hill (1994) and American Buffalo (1996). Based on Peter Farrelly’s 1988 novel, it represents the Farrelly brothers at their most personal, even though it isn’t directed by them. Rogers on the other hand, decided to make a gross-out dark comedy. Neither movie received great critical or commercial reception.

The next phase of their career started with Shallow Hal and Osmosis Jones (both 2001). Both these films represent lighter comedies done in the Farrellys’ signature style. Shallow Hal is a romantic comedy along the lines of Groundhog Day (1993), but with the Farrellys’ freakish nature thrown in. It’s really a movie about the guys from Dumb and Dumber growing up. It’s the type of movie that many comedy directors and actors decide to make when deciding to make lighter films. Osmosis Jones is an animated family film, in which the Farrellys directed the live action segments starring Bill Murray. Both these movies suggest the route that many of their later films would take, as they both feature men becoming good husbands and fathers. From here, they made a string of lighter comedies (Stuck on You, Fever Pitch) before returning to darker comedies with a remake of The Heartbreak Kid (2007) with Ben Stiller and Hall Pass with Owen Wilson.

After that, they directed the family comedy The Three Stooges (2013) and Dumb and Dumber To (2015), both of which were considered as mediocre at best. Recently, they both decided to work on separate projects, with Peter deciding to make the historical drama, Green Book (2019) starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, and Bobby being attached to the romantic comedy, One Night Stan.

Observations

The Farrelly Brothers have had a pretty up and down career. What made them successful also defines what many consider to be their flaws.

One great example of this comes in their treatment of mentally or physically challenged people in their movies. One of the refreshing parts of their movies is that they treat these people as individuals who are just trying to live their lives, rather than as perfect people. One of the best scenes in Shallow Hal happens when Hal meets a burn victim that his girlfriend is treating and realizes how difficult her life truly is. However, that does not mean that everybody felt satisfied with their portrayal in the films. Albino Michael Bowman later regretted appearing as Whitey in Me, Myself & Irene, as he felt like it sent the wrong message to people about Albinism. Admittedly, so much of their comedy comes out of freakishness. Like John Waters or the Coen brothers, they base their films around oddball characters. In both those other filmmakers’ cases, their weirdness comes from the fact that it feels like the characters made the choice to act the way they do. In Waters’ case, we are never supposed to take the aesthetic too seriously and you can tell that by his casting choices (he cast Divine as a housewife multiple times). In Farrelly brothers’ films, they include real people with mental and physical disabilities as characters with mixed results. To be fair, they tend to present these characters in a very earnest empathetic way. There’s no intended malice in the films towards them. That said, some of the jokes come across as disconcerting rather than rewarding. However, I also do not think it’s the main reason their later films received less attention.

Like many filmmakers, their characters become less challenging as the films go along. At the beginning, their characters exist on the fringes of society. The difference between There’s Something about Mary and its imitators is that every lead character and his love interest in those movies became much blander and safer than Ben Stiller’s Ted and Cameron Diaz’s Mary. However, the same can be said for the later Farrelly brothers’ films. As this happened, the characters lost a lot of what made them the underdog. Jim Carrey’s character in Dumb and Dumber represents a desire to be loved and respected. Owen Wilson’s character in Hall Pass represents a desire to cheat on a spouse without consequences. These new characters represent the status quo, not the outsiders. Both Hall Pass and Dumb and Dumber To also feature plot lines about a much older man wanting to sleep with a much younger woman. Due to this shift in character, the freakishness became less endearing and more unsympathetic.

One last thing that’s a vice and virtue comes in their process: they tend to rewrite other people’s scripts and make them their own. During this process, they get rid of what they feel are the more clichéd parts of the script. For example, the original Shallow Hal script had a fortune teller change Hal’s perception of the world. In the movie, they change this character to Tony Robbins. This decision was one of the most controversial parts of the process, but it does represent a choice in their style of filmmaking. This has also lead them to remake many earlier better films, such as the original The Heartbreak Kid (1971) and Fever Pitch (1997). The Farrelly brothers remade both these quieter drier films into more obnoxious movies. In particular, the original Heartbreak Kid had a much more down to Earth tone than the remake. The original Heartbreak Kid explored the theme of a man never being satisfied with his partner. The remake has a perfect partner in Michelle Monaghan, making the Ben Stiller character unsympathetic and missing the point of the original.

Probably the most apt comparison would be to somebody who started at the same time: Adam Sandler. Like the Farrellys, Sandler started his career with more lowbrow eccentric outsiders. Unlike the Farrellys, Sandler had a more specific goal: making fun of rich people. Billy Madison (1994) has its buffoonish heir as the butt of its jokes. Happy Gilmore (1995) works primarily because Sandler brings the crass blue collar Americans into the erudite world of golf. He even remade Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), one of Frank Capra’s best films about a working-class hero giving up millions to help the homeless. However, as Sandler’s career went on, his characters became more and more wealthy. The jokes became less about his characters fighting against the world and more about his characters being trampled on by the more lowbrow world. Movies like Click (2006) and Grownups (2010) focus on a rich man leading a good life, with the events of the story being less about lampooning the rich, and more about celebrating wealth. His less original work also became remakes of films about upper middle class folks. Grownups resembles The Big Chill (1984), while Just Go with It (2011) is practically a remake of Cactus Flower (1967) with a more exotic locale. The appeal of Sandler came in his criticism of wealth rather than his celebration of it. Similarly, the appeal of the Farrelly brothers’ comedies came in the working-class characters going up against a system, rather than being a part of that system.

However, all of these qualities give the Farrelly brothers their unique brand. Their films examine the most absurd parts of human nature. They take the most conventional scripts and make them original.

Conclusion

While they have had a mixed career, many of the Farrelly films still work after all this time. Even though it’s not a favorite of mine, There’s Something about Mary remains a modern dark comedy classic that all the imitators could not top. Kingpin remains a personal favorite, due to its sweet style and wacky sense of humor. Even some of their later films have merit. Although it’s a pretty basic romantic comedy, Fever Pitch probes the natural competitiveness in human nature. Their careers have multiple noteworthy films and not all of them are great, but all of them have an earnest quality to them.

 

Bibliography

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Lohr, Matt R. and Dan O’Bannon. Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure. Michael Weise Productions, 2013. Print.

McNary, Dave. Viggo Mortensen-Mahershala Ali’s ‘Green Book’ Set for Awards Season Release. 25 June, 2018. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2018/film/news/viggo-mortensen-mahershala-ali-green-book-1202857862/

Parker, Dorothy. AICN’s Super Sexy Dorothy Parker interviews… the great Michael Bowman!!!!. Ain’t It Cool news, 23 August 2000, http://www.aintitcool.com/node/6753

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