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Idiots Delight

Recently, a publicist who works at a movie studio asked me if I would fax her a quote. Earlier in the day, I'd left her an enthusiastic phone message about a film her company was releasing. My enthusiasm was genuine, and as far as I knew, nonbinding. In exchange, however, she wanted me to send her a quote, something, she said, that might run in the ads. Although this may seem hard to believe, I don't enjoy being quoted in movie ads, mainly because it blurs the line between editorial and advertising, a line that's already so blurred as to be nearly irrelevant, especially in what's optimistically called entertainment journalism. And given the gush that usually festoons movie advertising, being quoted in ads has always seemed more embarrassing - even degrading - than exciting. (Did I actually describe Armageddon as "riveting"? Did I really use five exclamation points?)

The problem is, what do you do when you love a film, particularly a studio film that doesn't need your help but is so mercilessly funny you can't think of the last time you laughed so long and so hard, to the point that your giggles ballooned into belly laughs? To that end, let me offer the following "blurb," one that may be used in its entirety in all advertisements, print or electronic: Peter and Bobby Farrelly's There's Something About Mary is the fucking funniest American movie I've seen in years. The humor in this relentlessly crude screwball comedy is less barbed than that in Caddyshack - a film hinged, after all, on untrammeled class warfare - and it's certainly less sophisticated (and resonant) than that of Groundhog Day. But Mary is nonetheless that rarest of American artifacts: a comedy that makes you laugh.

The Farrellys first alarmed culture czars with their feature debut, Dumb and Dumber; they followed that smash with the flaccid Kingpin, a comedy that, outside Bill Murray's peerless turn as a vicious bowling champion, came across as more desperate than funny. Considering the coarseness of their first movies, in terms of both story and wit, it's surprising how comfortable the pair seem with the conventions of screwball comedy, even if their way into the genre owes more to the happy barbarism of the Three Stooges than it does to Ernst Lubitsch. There's Something About Mary gets off to an unsteady start with a flashback cued to the mid-'80s. Ted (Ben Stiller), who's actually talking to his shrink 10 years in the future, is rhapsodizing over Mary (Cameron Diaz), a flaxen-haired high school beauty in tight jeans. The story essentially follows the adult Ted's attempts to find Mary, a search for which he initially hires a creep named Healy (Matt Dillon). Healy finds Mary, then decides to keep her for himself, a complication that's just involved enough to sustain the movie through to its end.

That's the plot, but not the movie. The movie is the jokes - the cascade of sight gags, double takes, silly word play and bits of tortured physical business. It's the woman (not Diaz) flashing breasts as withered as raisins, the man on crutches who keeps dropping his keys, the errant gob of semen, the slapping sound of frantic masturbation. It's the way Ben Stiller looks at Cameron Diaz, the whiff of desperation about his character, and his cagey intelligence. (Stiller holds still better than most actors move.) It's the way Ted wrestles with his zipper, with mythmaking consequences, and the way he braves a rabid terrier. And if the Farrellys don't know yet how to arrange a group of actors in a shot, they do know how to exploit Stiller, Dillon and co-star Chris Elliot to the fullest, and how to push a joke to its breaking point. I just wish that they'd allowed Diaz the same madcap willfulness enjoyed by Claudette Colbert and Carole Lombard in their giddy prime. Still, since Jonathan Richman shows up every so often to sing a song, it's ridiculous to complain any further.


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