Film: The Big Picture - Mary, Mary quite amenable

Is it not about time that someone took responsibility for what gets shown on our cinema screens? In the new comedy There's Something About Mary, there are jokes involving narcotic abuse, masturbation, genital deformity and the mentally disabled; domestic pets are routinely injured and bodily fluids fly across the screen willy-nilly.

However, the really outrageous thing about the movie is that most of the unsavoury little surprises on which its comic vitality depends have been spoiled by the cinema trailers many months in advance. If you have seen those previews, then you are already prepared for most of the film's highlights, and will therefore sympathise with my bleat of protest. For those who have not, I pledge not to remove the sting from any of the picture's five or six pristine gags in the following review.

This may not be as tricky as it seems. While these instances of puerile, gross-out humour are what the movie is becoming notorious for, they are actually nothing more than ostentatiously vulgar embellishments on a very ordinary love story. The icing may be tasteless, but the cake underneath is just a flavourless, bland confection.

The Farrelly Brothers, Peter and Bobby, are renowned for a sense of humour that comes straight from the U-bend, though for my money the real strength of their work lies in an irrepressible penchant for comedy hairdos, or rather hairdon'ts. In their first collaboration, Dumb and Dumber, Jim Carrey wore that goofy mixing-bowl cut that got you duffed up in junior school, while Bill Murray's flapping, squelchy slick of brushed-over quiff in Kingpin assumed a life of its own and arguably deserved an award for Best Haircut in a Supporting Role.

Ben Stiller is the poor lug put at the mercy of a sadistic stylist for the Farrellys' new film, and the helmet-shaped bird's nest which he wears in the movie's prologue makes him look like a reject from Quest for Fire. He plays Ted, a high-school nerd who earns a Prom Night invitation from the coveted and popular Mary (Cameron Diaz) after he defends her mentally disabled brother from a bully. But moments before they are due to leave, Ted has a nasty accident with his zipper. The resulting scrambled mess of metal and scrotum, which the Farrellys generously reveal in unsparing close-up, leaves him incapacitated.

Thirteen years on, we find Ted still agonising over the incident, and nursing his unfulfilled desires for Mary. The zipper incident is the catalyst for Ted's frustration, and is the first in a succession of paranoid concerns that run through the film.

The screenplay (written by the Farrellys with Ed Decter and John J Strauss) is structured around worst-case scenarios that provide some alarming insights into the condition of the modern male psyche. As the film presents it, the most horrific things that can happen to a man are: a) getting a date with the prettiest girl in town and then accidentally mangling your own penis; b) being mistaken for a homosexual and, as a result, c) being forced to participate in homosexual acts.

There are numerous other manifestations of male sexual neurosis which it would be unfair to disclose here, though all of them carry a palpable undertow of fear, either about the vulnerability of the penis, or its capacity to undermine the authority of its owner.

This is a residue from the sex comedies of the late 1970s, specifically the Israeli trilogy of Lemon Popsicle, Going Steady and Hot Bubblegum, which in turn inspired the Porky's series. In those movies, teenage boys attempted to prove their sexual prowess and invariably disgraced themselves, and their intended conquests, in the process.

Although the comedy was fraught with male insecurity, there was traditionally a designated nerd on to whom the bulk of the humiliation could be loaded. If There's Something About Mary represents any progression in this genre, and that in itself may be negligible, then it is that all men are now subject to the same embarrassment. Nerds rule.

The film's male characters are united by their inadequacy, sexual or otherwise. One muddles around on crutches. Another breaks out in raw, pustulent boils and conclusively confirms a link between immorality and a taste for cigars. Pat, a seedy private detective nicely played by Matt Dillon, has a hopelessly clumsy way of misreading the most blatant signals.

When he discovers that any potential boyfriend of Mary's must bond with her disabled brother, he cooks up a pretence to impress her. "I work with retards," he says proudly, not missing a beat.

You might fear for the self-esteem of male film makers who so vigorously bemoan their own gender were it not for the fact that the female characters fare even worse.

It is not that the movie is sexist - indeed, it mounts an argument for love thriving independently of physical beauty, though obviously this is a damn sight easier to achieve when you have Cameron Diaz as your leading lady

It's more that the film is curiously coy about the female sex drive. When it is present, it provides a moment of panic: the only woman here with any discernible libido is Mary's ageing flatmate, whose pendulous, over-tanned breasts Pat glimpses through his binoculars.

As in Kingpin, the threat of any woman whose age and body deviate from the guidelines set out by the Pirelli calendar provokes male hysteria; the suggestion that this woman may also still enjoy sex is too disturbing to be processed as anything other than horror.

As the Farrellys would have it, a man's worst enemies are his penis and his mother. No wonder most of the male characters here are chasing Mary, who smiles a lot and has a spring in her step but is essentially a witless, non-threatening, feather-brained Barbie doll.

Cameron Diaz is a joyful actress but her charisma is squeezed out here because she is forced to play bystander; an actress cannot live on reaction shots alone. Even in scenes which verge on the dramatic, Mary is nudged around on the whim of whichever man happens to be commanding her attention.

Her single moment of realisation, when she discovers that it was Ted who hired Pat to trace her whereabouts, only arises when a rival suitor sends an anonymous letter. She is so passive that she is practically catatonic. Opportunities for potential triumph are repeatedly snatched from her. After meeting Ted and engaging in small-talk, she rebuffs his suggestion of meeting up to rake over old times with the acidic rejoinder "Didn't we just do that?"

But do not panic, boys, because your hang-ups are safe in Mary's hands: she is only kidding. Even the title is a red herring, for it actually transpires that there's nothing about Mary - nothing at all. Now that is what I call a gross-out.