Friday, September 12, 2008
I find it especially hard to believe that it has been ten years since The Farrelly Brothers unleashed There’s Something About Mary on American audiences, but it has indeed been just over a decade since this extremely influential film hit American theaters in July of 1998.
I was at a particularly strange place in my life in 1998 and perhaps a lot of the warm and nostalgic feelings I have for The Farrelly Brothers most iconic film has to do with how much unbelievably joy it gave me during that particularly dark summer and fall. I find that viewing the film now is like having a secret rendezvous with a past love or an old friend, and the feelings I have watching There’s Something About Mary all these years later are that potent joyousness with more than a little bittersweet sadness mixed in for good measure.
Although they have been overtaken by the Apatow comedic machine this decade, The Farrelly Brothers ruled American Comedy on the big screen in the mid to late nineties and There’s Something About Mary was their greatest triumph, an R-rated comedy that managed to gross nearly 200 million dollars domestically along with being given the seal of approval by the majority of the critical establishment. It was quite a feat for the brothers from Rhode Island and, while many might question me stating this, I think There’s Something About Mary is one of the most influential of all modern American films, as every comedy that has come since that has attempted to mix heart with gross out humor (namely everything from Old School to Knocked Up) has owed something to The Farrelly Brothers' story about a lonely guy named Ted, and his memory of the girl from high school named Mary that he just can’t let slip away.
The Farrelly Brothers had made two films before There’s Something About Mary, 1994’s Dumb and Dumber and 1996’s Kingpin. Dumb and Dumber got its share of acclaim although it was dismissed in many quarters. It became an instant cult film though and marked The Farrellys as a team to watch. The incredibly funny Kingpin sealed their reputation as being at the forefront of a new and distinctly American comedic movement, and it made There’s Something About Mary one of the most anticipated American comedies since Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot thirty years earlier.
While the title is There’s Something about Mary, the film is really about the lovably lost dreamer Ted Stroehmann, and in Ben Stiller The Farrelly Brothers found their ideal leading man. Funny, handsome, a good actor and a filmmaker himself Stiller was made to play Ted and it remains one of his most effective and completely winning performances.
Stiller in place, The Farrelly’s found an inconceivable number of valuable and talented actors to fill out the rest of the cast including Matt Dillon (giving one of his career best performances as the sleazy private eye Pat Healy), Lee Evans as Tucker, Chris Elliot as Dom, Markie Post and Keith David as Mary’s parents and in smaller roles, the unforgettable Jeffrey Tambor and just on the cusp of her own important career, Sarah Silverman.
While it may be hard to remember now, there was a time when the woman chosen to play Mary was one of the most promising young actors in America. After making a huge splash with her debut in 1994’s The Mask, Cameron Diaz surprisingly stepped out of the spotlight and shot a series of smaller independent films, including 1995’s bitter satire The Last Supper and the underrated Feeling Minnesota in 1996. She returned to high profile pictures with 1997’s My Best Friend’s Wedding and was, when she shot There’s Something About Mary, one of the most beloved and acclaimed young actors in America.
Cameron Diaz was the only choice to play Mary in 1998 and her delightful turn as the girl that no guy can forget is at times moving and never less than hysterical.
Cast in place, the film shot for a budget of 23 million dollars in a number of Florida, Rhode Island and Maryland locations in the early part of 1998. Fox, after seeing an early cut, felt they had a hit on their hands and rather ingeniously set up a national sneak preview a week before its regular release to get word of mouth going…it was a choice that paid off big time for everyone involved.
It was at one of these sneaks in Lexington, Ky. where I saw the film for the first time and it is to this day one of the funniest and most joyous communal experiences of my life. Seated next to my movie buddy David and with a sold out audience in attendance, The Farrelly’s Brothers film simply killed and the infectiously hilarious and sweet mood the film set, from its opening scenes of Jonathan Richman and his drummer basically being introduced as a two man Greek Chorus to the festive closing credit sequence where the cast and crew sing along to “Build me up Buttercup”, never let up. There’s Something About Mary captured something in the air that summer of 1998 and its impact was great on the millions, like myself, that it touched.
Throughout the week after that preview it seemed like everyone was talking about the film. Critical reaction was equally as enthusiastic with everyone from hard to please critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to Kenneth Turan singing its praises. There were some hold outs like David Denby but for the most part There’s Something About Mary was a stunning success for a genre that hardly ever gets the respect it deserves. Not surprisingly the film was ignored at Oscar time although it did garner some other awards and nominations that year, including two Golden Globe nods.
I could go on and on about what it was that touched, and continues to touch, me about the story, the music and film of There’s Something About Mary but finally what it came to in that summer of 98 was that the film gave me some much needed relief. It made me laugh, and it made me feel joyously alive the way only a true masterful comedy can. I appreciated it then and I appreciate it even more now…because we all know that America in 2008 is a much darker place than 1998 was.
Despite never scaling the heights of critical and popular favor again the way they did with There’s Something About Mary, The Farrelly Brothers have continued to do really fine work. I actually think there charming Nick Hornby adaptation Fever Pitch from 2005 might be there finest film but it didn’t have the same kind of phenomenal cultural backing There’s Something About Mary did.
The film’s stars have all done fine work as well in the past ten years. Matt Dillon won a long deserved Oscar a couple of years back for Crash (2006), Jeffrey Tambor became a legend with his turn as George Bluth Sr. on the much missed series Arrested Development and Sarah Silverman has become one of the most important and successful comics in America.
And what of Ted and Mary? Ben Stiller has proven a force in front of the screen in the decade since There’s Something About Mary, and now with the audacious and absolutely genius Tropic Thunder he has become one of our most intelligent and daring filmmakers.
The career of Cameron Diaz has been, for lack of a better term, a disappointment but she's still got talent to burn and remains one of the most infectiously charming actresses on the planet. Mary remains her greatest role and in a way Cameron Diaz is forever frozen in my mind as Mary.
There’s Something About Mary is available in a terrific two disc version and while I am sure everyone here has seen it, give it another look if it has been awhile. While some of its more daring humor for the time might seem slightly dated now, due to how far Apatow and the like have taken modern American Comedy, There’s Something About Mary has lost none of its resonance or sweetness…it’s a potent snapshot of a dreamer a few years before a lot of us lost the dream.