When Gross Stuff Happens to Good People

Reviews of the latest films.
July 19 1998 3:30 AM

When Gross Stuff Happens to Good People

The bottom of the barrel genius of the Farrelly brothers.

There's Something About Mary
Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly
20th Century Fox


Buffalo 66
Directed by Vincent Gallo
Lions Gate Films

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A few years ago, during an especially grim Sundance Film Festival (the top prize went to The Brothers McMullen), a parade of black-turtlenecked independent filmmakers bemoaned the crass state of mainstream American cinema. "How much room is there for us," whined one indie auteur, "when the year's most popular movie is Dumb & Dumber?" I thought, "Pal, you should make a movie as smart as Dumb & Dumber."

OK, some of its scenes looked as if they'd been lit with a desk lamp, and the bit where the hero ignites his fart like a blowtorch lacked a certain élan. But fashionable as it was to dismiss the picture as a puerile Jim Carrey vehicle, Dumb &Dumber was tirelessly inventive, riding in on a wave of gross-out sight gags: not mere fart jokes but expulsive diarrhea jokes, blind child jokes, decapitated pet bird jokes, kung-fu dismemberment jokes, plus wall-to-wall jokes on the theme of "How stupid can these morons actually be?" What held those jokes together--apart from Carrey's resourceful clowning and Jeff Daniels' sweetness--was an elusive combination of professional discipline and feces-hurling infantilism, reinforced by the conviction that the tastiest cuisine is whatever you can scrape off the bottom of the barrel. That, plus a kind of tenderness, a joy in all things scatological, rendered outrage spurious. Clever monkeys, these filmmakers.

They were brothers from Rhode Island named Peter and Bobby Farrelly, who seemed like a coarse variation on Joel and Ethan Coen: If the Coens took junky premises and turned them into film school (even postdoctoral) exercises, the Farrellys remained pre-kindergarten, arrested at Eriksonian levels of anal and oral fixation. Their next film, Kingpin (1996), was a slobbish takeoff on The Color of Money in which dissolute ex-champ Woody Harrelson propels raw Amish prodigy Randy Quaid to the top of the bowling leagues. It was a commercial flop, but I roared at everything--even the zoophilic jokes--until its terrible tagline. Am I the only one who caught the quotation from the 1965 Don Knotts classic The Ghost and Mr. Chicken? The Farrellys' heroes are dweebish losers like Knotts with the post-John Waters burden of uncontrollable bowels and sexual fluids. To call them "pathetic" would be to romanticize them.

Losers competing against one another (and even bigger losers) for a dishy woman: That's the setup for their wrackingly funny new farce There's Something About Mary, maybe the ultimate nerd masochistic fantasy. For two hours, a procession of dweebs humiliate themselves and one another to attract the attention of the smart, friendly, coltish, blond goddess Cameron Diaz, who's like a tall drink of water--no, a tall milkshake--a tall ice cream sundae ... wow, she's just ... wow. Over here, Cameron! Read this dweeb's review!

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S orry. But what a distracting presence: a creamy beauty with the bearing of a Swede but larger, friendlier, more clownlike features and an irresistibly sunny disposition. Around this gossamer vision the Farrellys have built their grossest comedy yet. Rarely have I sat with an audience that literally screamed at a gag as if it were watching a grisly hack-'em-up. Come to think of it, the brothers have a hack-'em-up way with a joke, comedy and horror being joined for them like Siamese twins at the crotch. Every action generates the most hideous, degrading consequences; the universe is littered with castrating land mines.

As a pimpled, brace-faced high-school senior, diminutive hero Ben Stiller hopes to impress his unlikely date (Diaz) by charming her mentally challenged (read: retarded) brother--who responds with a pummeling that drives him into the bathroom to wash his bloody nose and urinate--whereupon he's sighted through the window by his date and her mom, who think he's masturbating--whereupon he pulls his zipper up through his testicles--whereupon the entire neighborhood descends to watch police and firefighters attempt to free his private parts--whereupon they discover he's a big bleeder ...

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I won't spoil the subsequent slapstick set pieces, which are even more ghastly. The bulk of the film happens 16 years later, when Stiller, still dreaming of the girl (whom he never saw again), is urged by his vaguely satanic buddy, played by Chris Elliot, to hire a private detective to locate her. This turns out to be Matt Dillon with a greasy caterpillar of a moustache, a con artist who travels to Miami and himself falls for the still-unmarried Diaz--now an orthopedist who brings apples to old neighbors, greets everyone with a smile, and romps in her spare time with the physically and mentally challenged. It's no wonder her world abounds with stalkers, each cretin bent on fooling her into thinking he's whatever she wants in her Prince Charming.

Stiller, with his Mr. Potato Head ears and homuncular demeanor, regards the world with a dopey, loping innocence. His hellish trek to Florida and war of wits with Dillon--a gung-ho physical comedian--give the picture all the narrative it needs. But the real stars of There's Something About Mary are the humiliations themselves--the masturbation travesties, drug disasters, pustule eruptions, and dead pet crises that dog each character like Fate. Even when you're able to guess the next calamity, it's still a shock in its ejaculatory intensity. The Farrellys never throw in the towel. Pretentious Sundance independents could learn a lot from such pistols.

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M aybe some of them already have. Take Vincent Gallo, the in-your-face writer, director, composer, and star of Buffalo 66, who's famous for calling up and haranguing critics who've had the effrontery to pan his self-proclaimed masterpiece. As a gesture of solidarity with my colleagues, I'd like nothing more than to stand up to this nutso egomaniac and tell him his movie's a piece of crap--except that his movie's terrific, an original and disarming vision of a life that's all skids. Sometimes in-your-face egomaniacs make natural filmmakers.

Like the Farrellys' film, Buffalo 66 opens with an excruciatingly extended episode of bathroom humor. Newly discharged from prison into a bleak, upstate New York winter, Gallo realizes after the gates have closed that he has to take a leak. The guards won't let him back in, there's no toilet on the bus, and the station's men's room is out of order. So he sneaks into a nearby dance studio where he still can't piss but does succeed in kidnapping hoofer Christina Ricci, whom he orders to accompany him to the home of his demented parents (Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara) and pretend to be his wife.

The reptilian Gallo--with his sharp nose, devil's eyes, and beard like a corrosive fungus--has a jabbing delivery that suggests what Michael Douglas would sound like doing a Scorsese picture; at other times, his voice breaks, and he screams with the strangled hysteria of Bobcat Goldthwait. It's hard to tell why he's always seething--until we meet his parents, who are true wack jobs and barely register his presence. The scenes in their house have a crawling, improvised feel, as if he's waked to find himself in a zombie sitcom--but his anger burns off the cooling fog of irony. Everything is slightly overlit, giving surfaces a white-hot sheen and the whole movie the aura of a Super 8 East Village short of the '70s or '80s.

Gallo's combination of crudeness and sophistication has a preternatural power. The 180 degree reverse angles, the occasionally deliberate misframing, the flashbacks that rise out of the center of the screen like a white sheet on which primal-traumatic home movies unspool: All drive home the protagonist's feverish alienation. Surreal interruptions, in which characters step into a white spotlight and croon a song or do a little tap dance, play like pop-religious visions of a happier, more innocent world. Dennis Potter, David Lynch, and others have come this way before, but Gallo's universe still feels organic.

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The central relationship might have come off as oppressively sentimental were it not for Ricci. She has one of the most fascinating child-woman faces in movies. Her dark eyes have been set off by thick lashes and blue eye shadow, and her skin is so white she might be a doll carved out of ivory. She simultaneously deflates and elevates her overbearing director/co-star. When she trains those eyes on him, it's with a mixture of sympathy, scorn, and wonder--which cancel one another out and leave behind a sort of nonjudgmental, Christian forgiveness. If this lunatic blowhard can find someone to look at him like that, there's hope for us all.

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