Cinema: It is awful, but we liked it

There's Something About Mary 15
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The Independent Culture
There are any number of film-makers working in the slapstick sex-comedy genre who might feature a gag about about a guy's tackle getting caught in his flies. But only the Farrelly brothers, the "brains" behind the scatology-and-stupidity-fests Dumb and Dumber and Kingpin, would attempt to show it.

Their new film, the much-hyped There's Something About Mary, opens with 16-year-old Ted (Ben Stiller, with a mouthful of train-track braces, a Planet of the Apes hairdo and a "taupe and tan" tuxedo) turning up for his dream date: the high-school prom with the gorgeous Mary (Cameron Diaz). But the evening is aborted when the above mentioned misfortune befalls Ted in Mary's parents' bathroom. A protracted scene has Ted quivering in the corner and several people screaming in horror ("How did you get the zipper all the way up?") before we are allowed to see the problem: bulbous, inflamed, swelling through the zipper's teeth, a miracle of modern sfx. It looks less like male genitalia than something you might find at the bottom of a freezer at Iceland. But all the men in the audience inhaled and recrossed their legs.

Cut to 13 years later, and Ted (minus wig and braces) is still obsessing over the event. So he hires Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), a private investigator with a taste for tropical shirts and pencil moustaches, to track Mary down. As there's something about Mary, Healy falls for her himself, and tells Ted she's become an overweight, wheelchair-bound mail-order bride. Ted also heads for Miami but is delayed because - this being the Farrelly brothers - he is mistaken for first a cottager and then a serial killer.

The "something" about Mary is that she seems to melt the brain of any man she encounters, reducing him to a life-support machine for a penis. Other than that, she's a rather ill-fitting composite of fantasies. She's a doctor, therefore intelligent (although she rarely seems to display it - but more of that later). She has a bleeding heart (she looks after her mentally handicapped brother, and there are lots of distant shots of her doing community-service things like giving elderly people free hamburgers and playing football with disadvantaged adults). She's into sport (she plays golf and lists "someone who'll take me to the Superbowl" as a requisite feature in a boyfriend. Confusingly, though, one of the noble tasks we see her performing is giving away the sports section of her newspaper to a passing man.) So it's hardly surprising - supposedly - that she's being stalked by no less than four men.

The body-fluid brothers have surpassed themselves in this film - in more ways than one. All the urine-drinking and fetishising of the cult of idiocy in the Farrellys' previous films was somewhat tired and tiresome. But in Mary, they've sharpened up their act while managing to avoid cleaning it up. And the offence factor? Well, what offence factor? Yes, there's the much-publicised masturbation scene, and the dog-electrocution scene. There's an aren't-people-on-crutches-funny scene, courtesy of Lee Evans. Lin Shaye, as Mary's sun-loving flatmate, is given wrinkled dugs and an epidermis like the skin on cold coffee. Ted's friend Dom gets a blowjob while watching TV. We get a shot of gay men in Y-fronts, caught in police headlamps. But none of this is even remotely shocking - it's puerile and irreverent and at times very funny. The film doesn't even strain at the boundaries of PC-ness. It just gives them a restrained little prod every now and then.

But the Farrellys do need to hone their grasp of female psychology. The basic premiss relies on the assumption that Mary is witless enough to believe the nonsense she's spun by these men. But I don't know any woman who wouldn't instantly see through Matt Dillon's dodgy improvisations and tombstone teeth. This is not a criticism on feminist grounds; it's just that the Farrellys sometimes undercut themselves with implausiblility. In one scene, Diaz mistakes a flob of sperm on Stiller's ear for hair gel: there is no way a heterosexual woman would confuse the appearance, texture and smell of these two substances. The idea that Mary is innocent enough to make this mistake is absurd.

It's Ben Stiller who really elevates Mary above the Farrellys' other films. His good-natured bafflement in the face of all the weirdness he's subjected to gives the film a centre of male intelligence and relative sanity that's previously been missing. And the other performances are pacy and seamless. Matt Dillon's greasy-fringed PI confirms his skill for the sleazier side of comedy. Diaz is all wide-eyed energy, brightly unconscious of her attraction, if a little ditzy.

The only exception, sadly, is Lee Evans as Mary's architect friend Tucker. He looks sweaty and overcooked, mugging away in a strangely inert fashion; you wonder what he's doing there, and whether he's accidentally wandered in off another set.

To sum up: funny jokes, great performances, excellent effects, sharp script. But the brothers really should go out and meet some girls.

Matthew Sweet returns next week.