How to make a drama out of a psychosis

Me, Myself And Irene (15) | Directors: Bobby And Peter Farrelly | Starring: Jim Carrey, Renée Zellweger, Anthony Anderson | 116 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

With There's Something About Mary, the Farrelly Brothers established three things: that they were gross, cruel and funny. Their latest, Me, Myself and Irene - about a man who, in the poetic words of the poster, "goes from gentle to mental" - may earn them a whole new reputation. It ain't funny, that's for sure. The real surprise, though, given all the outcry it's caused amongst mental health groups, is that it's not cruel, either. In fact, gosh-darn-it, it's kinda nice.

Jim Carrey plays Rhode Island policeman Charlie Baileygates, a man so accommodating he puts The Simpsons' Ned Flanders to shame. When his pretty blonde wife runs off with a brainy, somewhat stroppy black dwarf, she not only breaks his heart but leaves him with triplets (Jamaal, Lee Harvey and Shonte Jr) who bear a striking resemblance to their father (says a mean friend: "Ever noticed their year-round tans?").

As far as his neighbours are concerned, Charlie's failure to compete with a black man is bad. But, 15 years later, the fact that he loves the foul-mouthed, super-smart triplets like his own - he's so unwilling to acknowledge the betrayal he thinks they are his own - is worse. For them, his colour blindness is literally a handicap. In fact, it disgusts them. In a genuinely disturbing scene, one man actually encourages his dog to produce a thick brown turd on Charlie's lawn. And thus Charlie's role as cop becomes impossible. He's just not sound enough in body to uphold the law.

Of course, when a whole new persona rears up out of Charlie - a vortex of destruction otherwise known as Hank - everyone decides he's not that sound of mind, either. Hank looks like Charlie but talks like Elvis Presley and, quite literally, won't take any shit. That's not much use to poor Charlie, though who, just as soon as Hank's popped back inside, finds himself stuck with a big bottle of pills and a "schizo" tag.

It's such language, perhaps inevitably, that's got the Farrelly Brothers into trouble, but to take offence is to miss the point entirely. The real-life illness isn't the issue, falling foul of one's community is. Once Charlie's been identified as weak by the good people of Rhode Island, nothing he does - whether passive or aggressive - is acceptable. As a fine line in one of the other week's films, Secrets of the Heart, puts it, "If you don't do what people want, they say you're mad".

Charlie, about to sent on a long, very long holiday, has one little job to do before he goes: escort Irene P Waters (Renée Zellweger) to New York State, where she's liable for a charge of reckless driving. Surprise, surprise, it's more complicated than that. Irene's got herself involved with a dodgy businessman, Dickie, who thinks she's going to spill all to the Feds. He wants her dead and has set an assassin in a cop's disguise (Chris Cooper) on her trail. Once in Massena, Irene realises the trouble she's in and turns to Charlie. In their haste to escape, they leave his tablets behind...

And this is where the film's subliminal sweetness, really starts to bubble through, as it becomes clear that Irene needs both Charlie and Hank to protect her.

Hank, for instance, is a far better judge of people than Charlie. The latter can't understand where his sons got the idea "that the cops are the bad guys". Hank can. And keeps being proved right, which may be why the film's most infamous gag involves a chicken and a policeman's rear-end. (Gross? Oh yeah, nothing lacking in that department.)

Something else, too, clues us in to the fact that it's all right to thank Hank. Early on, we see Charlie watching TV with his toddler sons. He's happy to doze in front of a mainstream sitcom, but they beg to be allowed to watch Richard Pryor. Years later, it's Chris Rock. They may entirely adore Charlie, and believe him to be their daddy (a nice touch, that - for all their high IQs, they're as deluded as he), but they won't play "white". Hank's Swiftian spleen, whether aimed at smelly vaginas or bespectacled kids, underlines something fairly fundamental: birds of a feather stick together.

Yet at the same time, Charlie's inclusive innocence is never given the heave-ho. Irene is enchanted by a photograph of him and his "whippersnappers" dressed as the characters from The Wizard of Oz. More than a friend of Dorothy's, Charlie is Dorothy, and very fetching he looks, too. Judy Garland made for a suitably needy heroine, but her orphan smile has nothing on Charlie's. And it makes clear something we've suspected all along; that Charlie is not entirely all man.

The fact is, however, that Irene finds this desirable. Hank may conform to the more typical male ideal - coarse, predatory and hung like a horse - but, as Irene discovers, his interest in women hides a rampant narcissism (Farrelly fans will only need to hear the word "dildo" to know of what I speak). Charlie's willingness to include everybody in his "family" strikes her as sexy and, just as in There's Something About Mary, the endorsement of a cute blonde is all a guy needs to be left in peace.

As daft comedies go, then, Me, Myself and Irene is an ideological triumph, tapping into 20th century fears as neatly as David Fincher's two-men-in-one-body nightmare, Fight Club, but doing so with far more generosity of spirit.

So why isn't it a joy to watch? Because, as I say, the lines themselves aren't that funny. The script's been kicking around for years - the brothers themselves call it "haunted" - and, after endless re-writes, lacks an organic feel. In There's Something About Mary, scenes came out of nowhere and slapped you across the face. Remember Matt Dillon, desperate to impress Cameron Diaz with his caring approach towards the mentally handicapped, discussing a leash he bought for his little friend, Mungo: "You know, one of those ones you can hook on to the clothes line, so he could run back and forth... that kid, he's really blossomed..."? One little speech told you so much about a certain kind of beknighted sleaze-bag. There's nothing so bizarrely specific here.

Carrey, too, is unsatisfactory, though perhaps I'm not the best judge; I've always imagined that people who love him must find car alarms soothing. He can be gripping (as in The Cable Guy or on the final Larry Sanders Show, where he does his gymnastic schtick and then exposes an icily calm, no-bullshit professional beneath), but here there are only flashes of brilliance, the rest essentially auto-pilot stuff.

Thank God, then, for Zellweger, who, with her crunchy voice and harem-scarem limbs, is up there with Jean Arthur and the young Shirley MacLaine in the screwball comedy stakes. As Carrey's real-life girlfriend, maybe it was no stretch for her to appear enamoured of his extreme personality, but she's as warm as a bath and when Charlie lists her aesthetic virtues (squinty eyes and a face all pursed up like she's just sucked a lemon), you feel like cheering.

Oh, and one other thing. Just in case we've failed to notice their sophisticated little thesis on the merits, or otherwise, of tolerance, the brothers Farrelly bung in the best end-credit sequence of the year. So that nobody feels left out, they've provided pictures of all the people who appeared in sequences that got cut, or whose appearances were so fleeting they didn't get a credit. The laugh's on us as the snap-shots just keep coming - accompanied by labels such as "Derek Sander's Nieces", or "the Appe family" with arrows pointing to blurred and grinning faces... If you get up to leave, are you saying you don't have time for these "nobodies"? But if you stick around, can you be sure the list will ever stop? Where does niceness end and a debilitating fear of separation begin? Me, Myself and Irene may not be the most enjoyable of films, but it's smart and, by golly, it's got a heart the size of Hank's penis.

Anthony Quinn is on holiday