Looking back at the Farrelly Brothers' biggest hit

By Darren Franich and Keith Staskiewicz
Updated February 26, 2011 at 12:00 PM EST

This weekend, Peter and Bobby Farrelly direct the husbands-on-a-break comedy Hall Pass. We decided to look back on the movie that brought the Farrellys’ particular brand of feel-good gross-out humor into the American zeitgeist. There’s Something About Mary was the sleeper hit of 1998, spending most of the summer slowly rising higher on the box office top 10. It kickstarted the careers of stars Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller. But 12 years later, has the movie aged well?

Keith Staskiewicz: This movie really makes you realize that there is a big difference between being “offensive” and being truly offensive. Sure, there’s endless political incorrectness and gross-out visual gags, but there’s an actual heart behind it. Now, look at something like The Ugly Truth or Bride Wars. There’s certainly less, um, bodily effluvia, but at their cores, those movies are as morally blackened and shriveled as Mr. Burns’ heart. There’s a certain joy in a Farrelly Brothers movie that makes you realize just how mean-spirited a lot of rom-coms actually are.

Darren Franich: This is a movie you tell someone to watch when they’re feeling sad, because it’s just so infused with bubbly joy. It’s almost a meta-romantic comedy: Mary is the girl next door who’s also a total babe — she’s the perfect Paul Verhoeven mix of sexy and demure — and every single man onscreen is obsessed with her. But there’s a real three-dimensional quality to every character. Give credit to the casting director — future Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins, future comedy heroine Sarah Silverman, and future cartoon-voice god Keith David are just a few of the noteworthy names who pop up in very brief roles

KS: The movie would almost be a critique of other male-centric rom-coms if it weren’t too nice to do that. Mary is essentially every over-idealized, under-realized object of affection in movies like this: She’s an orthopedic surgeon, she’s beautiful, smart, funny and good-hearted. But rather than just take that as a matter of course like in, say, an Adam Sandler or high school-set comedy, they push it to its logical endpoint: A bunch of creepy weirdos who are totally infatuated with her and her flawlessness.

DF: Hey, lay off A-Rod!

KS: The only reason Ted gets her in the end isn’t by being obsessive and chasing her to the airport or any number of the criminally actionable things rom-com heroes tend to do. It’s because he puts her interests above his own and lets go.

DF: The storytelling in the movie is actually pretty complex. After the opening Ted-flashback, the action of the movie mostly shifts to following Matt Dillon’s Pat Healy, whose flirtation with Mary plays out like a kind of heist film in miniature. But then Healy’s mostly pushed aside when Ben comes to town. There are a lot of plot twists that are genuinely surprising, and so many disparate forces acting against each other. When all the characters come together in Mary’s apartment at the end of the movie, it’s kind of like Sherlock Holmes assembling the whole family in the drawing room. And then they sing “Build Me Up, Buttercup.”

KS: Don’t forget the troubadours!

DF: Never forget the troubadours!

KS: Forget who? It’s interesting to think that this was really the first movie that had Ben Stiller playing his friendly, awkward, quasi-nebbish Ben Stiller character. I mean before this he had his great MTV show and he directed Reality Bites and The Cable Guy. And even around the same time, he was starring in some pretty crazy stuff like Zero Effect and Your Friends & Neighbors that promised a really different (and possibly more respectable) career path.

DF: He was still in some weird stuff for a few years after MaryMystery Men, Permanent Midnight, and Keeping the Faith, which has one of the best set-ups for a bad movie.

KS: Isn’t the set-up just “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar?”

DF: Yeah, but the punchline is “…and fall in love with Jenna Elfman.”

KS: I think Stiller gets a bad rap when he gets lumped in with people like Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn. Sure, the Meet the Parents filmsand the Night at the Museum series are just big paychecks, but he also co-wrote and directed Tropic Thunder and starred in Greenberg. It’s almost schizophrenic, but at least he’s producing good work in between the dreck.

DF: It’s interesting that There’s Something About Mary actually invented two very particular star personae. Besides nailing Ben Stiller’s lovably-loser-everyguy, it also created the modern myth of Cameron Diaz: the self-aware funny model-hot tomboy who is simultaneously exotic (she’s Cuban!) and completely all-American (she’s blonde!). I feel like, in the last few years, Diaz has fallen kind of close to the realm of People Who Are Famous For Being Famous, which is a bummer, because in the right role she’s a lot of fun. (Fingers crossed, Bad Teacher!) I have to say, though, it’s sad to consider that Matt Dillon hasn’t really followed up on the incredible comic skill he shows in Mary. Between this and future PopWatch Rewind artifact Wild Things, 1998 seemed like the start of his second act.

KS: The Farrelly Brothers have had a somewhat interesting ensuing decade. I like both Shallow Hal and Stuck On You, actually, but I don’t think they reach the same mixture of funny and sweet, tending more towards the sappier side. The Heartbreak Kid was a remake of a movie directed by Elaine May, who was definitely more caustic than these two, which may be why it is actually a lot nastier than most of their work. (Although the ending proves that they were aware the whole time how much of a jerk their main character was.) It’s strange how they’re able to have characters that suffer from mental retardation, schizophrenia, obesity, conjoined-twinitis, etc., and yet still be less truly offensive than a lot of comedies that have none of those things. It’s because their treatment of those characters comes with a certain humanism, and they cast people like Rene Kirby.

DF: It’s a tricky mixture — they make films with characters who are all basically good people, but they’re only a couple shades away from being awful. Look at Lee Evans as Tucker, Mary’s handicapped architect friend. There’s an extended joke about his crutches that should be offensive — disabled person humor! But then you find out that Tucker is actually a pizza delivery guy who’s trying to win Mary’s affections. So now besides the disabled jokes, you’ve got a character pretending to be a disabled to stalk a girl.

DF: But somehow, Tucker (a.k.a. Norm) comes off as a little sad and weirdly adorable. How crazy is it that there really aren’t any villains in Mary? Even the crazy serial killer ain’t so bad!

KS: Maybe the real villain is me and you for constantly quoting “Franks and beans” and “Have you seen my baseball?” in that voice.

DF: We’re monsters!