Something About the Farrelly Brothers

My feelings about the Farrelly Brothers are…complicated. My principal reason for caring about them at all is that they are from my home state of Rhode Island, and represent it in their movies, much as Springsteen puts New Jersey in his songs. They are also smart enough to know that, as much as Rhode Island deserves respect for all sorts of reasons you never dreamt of (e.g. it’s one of the first places on earth to make freedom of religion the law of the land; it was founded by the founder of the Baptist Church; etc), nonetheless most Americans regard it as a punchline. My favorite part of Buck Henry’s now forgotten First Family (1980) was President Bob Newhart encountering a very small man in the Oval Office and saying, “Ah! I see the Senator from Rhode Island is here”. The Farrellys, Bobby and Peter, are from Cumberland, which is pronounced “Cumbaland” where I come from, as in “Cumbaland Fahms”. I cheered aloud when I saw a shot of Providence’s Big Blue Bug, a Them-sized fiberglass termite off I-95 advertising New England Pest Control, in Dumb and Dumber (1994).

Dumb and Dumber is of course the natural place to start. It’s the brothers’ first movie, and, for that reason, rather astounding to contemplate. How did it happen? These guys had done almost nothing prior to this — a “story by” credit on one 1992 episode of Seinfeld (the one entitled “The Virgin”). Then in 1994 they got to write and direct this smash hit comedy, and it was NOT a low budget indie. It was financed by New Line Cinema. Well, they got lucky, it appears. They had managed to attach Jim Carrey to the project when it was a smaller scale thing, and when his biggest claim to fame was being the token white guy on In Living Color. Meanwhile, Carrey’s first starring vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) became a surprise hit, and Carrey was suddenly one of the most sought-after (and expensive) stars in Hollywood. Fortunately for the Farrelly Brothers, he remained attached to their film, and the studio agreed to meet his salary demands and to increase the overall budget. And they gave Carrey free rein to do his patented cartoonish physical comedy, which was a perfect match for their own sensibilities, cementing his own status as the New Jerry Lewis, and establishing the Farrelly Brothers as important low comedy auteurs — a thing that scarcely existed in Hollywood anymore. So naturally, this is another of the things that make it obligatory for me to talk about the Brothers. Back in the day (roughly 1910-1960), there were dozens and dozens of outlandish slapstick comedy directors in Hollywood. But it became increasingly unfashionable in the mid-20th century, and for all intents and purposes was nearly extinct by the 1970s. Thus the Farrelly Brothers didn’t just DO Dumb and Dumber. They DARED to do Dumb and Dumber. I will always respect their iron-clad belief that this kind of comedy can still succeed with audiences and be grateful for their blazing of trails (or their rediscovery of old ones).

Another interesting thing about Dumb and Dumber (and another Farrelly Brothers precedent) is that it cast a legit dramatic actor, Jeff Daniels, as Carrey’s comedy partner, and directed him to be as broad and outlandish as Carrey. Reportedly, Daniels got paid peanuts for his performance. Where Carrey got millions, Daniels a few tens of thousands, but he stuck with the role for the admirable reason that he wanted to stretch in that direction. And that created a kind of vogue in Tinseltown for a few years among top stars to relinquish their dignity and do a Farrelly comedy, not unlike the demand to play Batman villains long about 1966. Thus alongside what I would call Farrelly “naturals” (comedians like Carrey, Chris Elliott, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, and Jack Black), you also got Cameron Diaz, Matt Damon, Renee Zellwegger, and Gwyneth Paltrow. Sadly, the ultimate potential Farrelly actor, Chris Farley, had a commitment that prevented him from doing Kingpin (1996) and was replaced by Randy Quaid. Farley died the following year. Kingpin is quite enjoyable now, but when I think of what Farley and the Farrellys could (and would) have done together, I salivate.

Yes! Saliva! A bodily fluid. This is another element of the Farrelly palette — gross-out stuff. The semen-as-hair-gel moment in There’s Something About Mary (1998) stands out as the most memorable of these stunts. In general, I squirm rather than laugh at these gambits. I think it can have potential in comedy, and has a noble history going all the way back to the Romans, but the Farrellys never seem to harness its potential, as most directors and writers who “go there” don’t. (Most, to be blunt, aren’t smart enough). In Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky a chamber pot is dumped out a window onto somebody’s head, and in addition to being hilarous and gross, it was the ultimate statement about the time and place of the story’s setting, Medieval Europe. That is what I’m taking about. Or in the work of John Waters, it is a kind of aesthetic signature. The Farrellys don’t do enough of it, or enough WITH it, but the smattering they sprinkle their movies with does make it a well known part of their voice.

A third strain in their work is their use of cheesy pop songs of the past on the soundtrack. My favorite of these is the use of fellow Rhode Islanders’ The Cowsills’ “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” (a.k.a. “I Love the Flower Girl”) in Dumb and Dumber. I also really loved their rehabilitation of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Showdown” in Kingpin.

We touched on Jerry Lewis above, and this brings us to another aspect of the Farrelly Brothers’ work, and it’s one of the things that prevents me from being a full-fledged fan. The problem is a coin with two sides. The Brothers, like many who are drawn to slapstick, have an an instinct and a sensibility that can best be described as mean and cruel. Characters perpetually hurt themselves and we laugh at it. But the concomitant feature is that the characters do this because they are, to quote the movie title, DUMB. Are the two guys in Dumb and Dumber mentally retarded? Jim Carrey’s haircut suggests as much (there, I said it). Once, audiences laughed at such spectacles and thought no more about it. By, by the 1990s when the Farrelly Brothers were coming to the fore, that was no longer the case. There were people and groups who questioned representation and choices. Seemingly to address this particular concern, the Farrellys begin putting “differently abled” people in their films, a gesture that feels to me not unlike Jerry Lewis’s involvement with the Muscular Dystrophy Association — a sort of tithe to keep the moralists at bay. Yet the gesture is ambiguous. There are without a doubt audience members who laugh AT these people. For those who don’t (as the Farrelly Brothers profess not to), the exercise feels patronizing and inorganic. Actual “born different” characters alongside the fat woman in Shallow Hal (2001) and the conjoined twins in Stuck on You (2003) at best muddle the issue. I think they would LIKE to live in a world where we just laughed at these people. But we don’t any more and they’re trying to devise a strategy that papers over what’s underneath.

Similarly, as I wrote in my review of their admirable 2012 Three Stooges reboot, most of their films are marred by attempts to graft sentiment and “heart” where it doesn’t belong, presumably because someone (audience response cards? producers?) is asking for it, for it surely doesn’t belong in their work. The characters they write and the worlds they live in do not warrant the presence of real, realistic emotion. Their recent remake of Neil Simon’s The Heartbreak Kid (2007) points up this blind spot. The overall critical consensus was “inexplicably, needlessly mean and cruel”. Their sensibility is closer to Larry Semon’s than to Charlie Chaplin’s. They cannot “do” Chaplin, but they yield to the world’s unreasonable expectation that everybody do so.

Here’s an illuminating recent experience. I decided to watch Green Book (2018) a few months back. As a rule I detest Hollywood’s tepid, feel-good, facile, inadequate approach to films about social problems, at least the ones they make nowadays. And knowing Green Book‘s reputation, we were already primed to hate-watch it. So we started watching, and I was like, “This is really WEIRD. Why does it have this immature, inappropriate comic tone?” I watched several scenes of Viggo Mortensen, a Dane, playing this Italian goomba from central casting, with all the nuance of a 60 year old pre-Godfather stereotype, and I was like, WTF? And then I looked it up, and remembered (guess I’d forgotten) that it was directed by Peter Farrelly. Ah! A light dawned. This apparently was his Zucker/Ghost moment, his attempt to become Ron Howard (which succeeded apparently, and why wouldn’t it, given that all of Howard’s crappy movies succeed?). And this explains the movie’s entire crude, stone age touch, including the very premise of the thing: a white racist learns to appreciate and respect the black guy he’s tied to over the course of a feature-length movie? You know what that is? That’s the plot of The Defiant Ones. If you want to know what all the outrage is about, apparently Hollywood can not progress beyond a 1958 approach to telling a story. It’s about a white man’s “admirable” transformation, which is both too little and too late. Tell the BLACK guy’s story! What’s so hard about that? And give the directing job to a black director! Hollywood is stuck in 1958, and wear themselves out patting themselves on the back about it.

Of course, they were still making Three Stooges comedies back in 1958, as well. Some things are worth reviving. There are other things we ought to have grown beyond.

For more on classic and slapstick comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.