By Liane Bonin
February 08, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

“We like the guys who know a little less than anyone,” Peter Farrelly has said about the geek heroes of the films he makes with brother Bobby. Apparently, so do audiences: ”There’s Something About Mary,” in which Ben Stiller overcomes a now legendary adolescent zipper incident and his own endearing wimpiness to win the heart of dream girl Cameron Diaz, was the runaway smash of last summer, grossing millions in every sense of the phrase. So how come this movie hit the zeitgeist bull’s-eye? Why was their first effort, the 1994 box office hit ”Dumb and Dumber” ultimately a triumph only within the context of Jim Carrey idiot-boy comedies? How come their second film, 1996’s ”Kingpin,” was overlooked entirely?

Looking at all three on video makes for a nice little film festival: Call it the History of Bodily Fluids in Modern Farce. But it also shows how two guys from Rhode Island could (after 15 unproduced screenplays and an unsuccessful attempt to market a circular beach towel) refine a formula derived from that holy trinity of lowbrow comedy, ”Animal House,” ”Stripes,” and ”Caddyshack,” and make it appeal to everybody. Especially, and oddly, women.

The female sex does figure into ”Dumb and Dumber” — but mostly as the object of distant worship or abject terror. The two title cretins, Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels), both pine for a gal named Mary (Lauren Holly), but when Harry actually gets to romp with her in Aspen, he ends up shoving her face into a snowbank. That’s a tip-off as to why the movie was never embraced by “grown-up” audiences or media the way Mary has been: Unapologetically reveling in infantilism, it never becomes more than a cartoon. A paralyzingly funny cartoon, from time to time — Daniels’ gut-busting bathroom nightmare is, for my money, funnier than the similar setup that kicks off ”Mary.” But Holly’s too remote and Carrey’s too manic for ”Dumber” to turn into something larger.

”Kingpin” may be the Farrellys’ homage to ”The Honeymooners.” God knows, Woody Harrelson wears enough padding as the one-handed, burnt-out bowling champ Roy Munson to beef himself up almost to Kramdenesque proportions, and Randy Quaid has a lock on Norton’s fatuous grin as Roy’s discovery, an Amish tenpins whiz named Ishmael Boorg. But if ”Kingpin” shows the brothers moving beyond the playground for inspiration (and only partly; there’s a gag involving bull semen I can’t go into here), the movie stiffed for a reason: It’s sour as hell. Harrelson bites into his role with his usual actorly gusto, and the result is that Roy really is a sleazeball. You certainly don’t buy his growing romance with a hubba-hubba bowling groupie (Vanessa Angel, playing the same sort of fantasy babe as Holly in ”Dumb” and Diaz in ”Mary”). More to the point, you don’t root for him. Not when Bill Murray is dancing around so dementedly as Roy’s nemesis.

”There’s Something About Mary” has many things in common with ”Kingpin”: The hero wears a hideous shag haircut in an early scene, there’s a score by an overlooked folk-rock troubadour (Freedy Johnston in ”Kingpin,” Jonathan Richman in ”Mary”), and actress Lin Shaye allows herself to be made really, really disgusting. But this time, the Farrellys (working with cowriters Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) have it figured out: They make the hero a nice guy and his rival a scuzzbucket. That simple decision frees Matt Dillon to be magnificently venal as private dick Pat (“I work with retards”) Healy and Ben Stiller to be schlumpfily noble as Ted Stroehmann. And even if the beloved ”Mary” is as unreal as the women in ”Dumb and Dumber” and ”Kingpin,” the Farrellys are clearly playing her perfection as a goof this time (she’s gorgeous! she’s a surgeon! she can hit the green in one!). In fact, the simple addition of a home life for their leading lady — and Diaz’s blithe, easy charm within that life — makes a world of difference.

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