In the newest comedy of bad manners from Bobby and Peter Farrelly, Jim Carrey plays a motorcycle cop named Charlie. A gentle soul with a jarhead haircut and Tom of Finland mustache, Charlie lives in a clapboard house on the coast of Rhode Island, and not long after the picture opens he carries his bride over the threshold, which is about when his troubles begin. Reaching for his wallet, he inadvertently insults the limousine driver, a black dwarf with a hair-trigger temper who beats the cop to his knees. The image of a black dwarf taking down a white cop is startling enough, but the Farrellys up the ante by making the dwarf a university professor who’s doing research from his driver’s seat, as well as president of the state chapter of Mensa. Adding insult to Charlie’s injuries, the little man is also catnip to the ladies, and he swipes the bride’s heart before she’s spent one night with her husband. Rarely has the reductio ad absurdum of white paranoia over black-male virility been as blissfully silly.

While it’s not the funniest bit in Me, Myself & Irene, the exchange between the cop and the dwarf betrays a conceptual reach that the Farrelly brothers generally obscure with a fusillade of yucky jokes, bodily fluids and mortified flesh. There’s nothing as remotely ambitious in the rest of the film, which was co-written by Mike Cerrone and is about Charlie, his mean-tempered alternate personality, Hank, as well as the women that one comes to love and the other to lust after (both played, wanly, by Renée Zellweger), and the three black sons Charlie has cheerfully, and unquestioningly, raised as his own. There’s also some intrigue involving a country club and an overlong chase, but mainly this is about watching Carrey fling himself around the screen, manipulating his body and face into a cavalcade of amusements while his bipolar characters run a gauntlet of physical and emotional abuse.

By the time the kids are grown, Charlie has spent a lifetime swallowing his rage. One particularly bad day, though, the nice guy swallows himself whole and disappears, leaving a cretin named Hank in his place. Possessed of a sandpapery Clint Eastwood purr and a loose, lubricated shuffle, Hank is pure id — moments after being born, he dunks a surly tot in a fountain and plows a car through a picture window. Unlike his better half, Hank acts out, giving all of Charlie’s rage and unsuppressed desire material form. He sucks on a lactating breast in one sequence, then, bouncing from the oral to the anal stage in the space of an edit, takes a shit on his neighbor’s lawn, an outrage the filmmakers punctuate with a shock cut to soft chocolate ice cream spiraling into a cup. Since humor, like pornography, especially the coarser variant, works on a deeply subjective level, it’s difficult to say why the image of Hank suckling at a tit seems funnier than one of him emptying his bowels, but it is.

Then again, part of it is the way the Farrellys set up their jokes. The breast-feeding laugh comes quickly, unexpectedly, built into the fast-sketch minutes during which Hank perpetuates his initial affronts. The defecation laugh, though, is telegraphed so well in advance that when it finally arrives, it’s neither funny nor surprising, only gross. The germ for the joke is, as it were, planted in one scene (his neighbor’s Great Dane has been fertilizing Charlie’s lawn) but not paid off until after Hank wreaks havoc in town. By the time Hank returns home we already know the punch line, yet we still have to wait for him to march across his neighbor’s yard and into his house, then wait for him to march out with a newspaper, position himself on his neighbor’s front lawn, unzip and squat.

For all their foul jokes and embarrassments, the brothers have a talent for creating characters whose goodness, and lack of ironic self-consciousness, shield them against life’s insults. The trick and delight of Dumb and Dumber isn’t that the titular fools don’t get it, it’s that they never do; even after they save the day, they’re oblivious. Ben Stiller’s love-struck character in There’s Something About Mary is a swamp of shame, but it’s his earnestness, his seriousness of purpose in the face of cringing humiliation, that shines through. His refusal to give up no matter what gives him a purity, even grace, that we tend to associate with small children, animals and the mad. As with all of the Farrellys’ best characters, he never returns a joke with a knowing sneer, never solicits the audience’s superiority. In such democratic comedy, the heroes may be dumb as posts, but they’re no worse than anyone else, just funnier.

But Charlie isn’t particularly funny, he’s simply a pushover with a heart as big as the Ritz and the sort of luck that makes grown men weep at the craps table, while Hank is nothing more than a predatory jerk with a leer and a swish borrowed from Carrey’s storehouse of masculine frippery. As his ostensibly serious roles have proved in films such as The Truman Show, Carrey may be a brilliant physical comic and an amazing mimic, but as an actor he’s not yet capable of bringing depth to a character if it’s not there to begin with. Separately, neither Charlie nor Hank adds up to much, and while there was a time not too long ago when Carrey could have saved this film simply by wiggling his uvula, he’s too famous, too important, or maybe just too self-important to make dumb work anymore. He’s laughed his way to the bank, and he’s not coming back.

Danish director Lars von Trier is one of the most important filmmakers working today; without question, on the level of form he’s one of the most consistently provocative. It’s a little less certain, though, just how smart he is — or, perhaps, how smart he believes his audience to be. The Idiots, which premiered to both hostility and rapture at Cannes in 1998 (his latest film, Dancer in the Dark, received a similar reception this year, plus the grand prize), is an often extremely funny, compulsively watchable and, finally, conceptually anemic film about a group of people who pretend to be mentally retarded. Since a lot of comedy depends on characters behaving with incredible stupidity, it seems something of a cheat for von Trier to milk laughs out of nominally normal people miming the nominally abnormal, which is precisely the point.

“They’re searching for their inner idiot,” explains Stoffer (Jens Albinus), the de facto leader of the titular therapy group–cum–commune. His listener is an understandably confused newcomer, Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), one of von Trier’s saucer-eyed, emotionally fragile women whose purity of soul is rewarded with a slightly blunted intelligence. It isn’t long before Karen, too, is “spassing” out with the rest of the robust, good-looking assemblage, converging on an unsuspecting world with arm-flapping, eyeball-rolling and sprays of spittle, all of which work the players into something of an erotic lather, a mass sublimation that eventually culminates in an impressively vigorous gangbang. (Although most of the world can watch this hardcore action uncensored, our very own idiots at the MPAA, Jack Valenti et al., have insured that in the United States, male genitals and sexual acts are blocked out. The women, of course, can be viewed totally nude.)

Shot Dogma-style with hand-held cameras, without the benefits or distraction of artificial lights and superfluous music, The Idiots is framed as a documentary. Every so often you see some camera equipment or a boom peeping into a shot, and the whole thing flips back and forth between the cavorting idiots and talking-head shots of the group members discussing the hows and whys of their relationships. That the interpersonal dynamics, the group’s self-therapy, sound like the games that actors play as part of their preparation is unsurprising. What is surprising, and disappointing, is a scene in which some actual retarded people join the idiots for an afternoon, and blow their hosts away just by the fact of being retarded. In that moment, the film fetishizes the authentically retarded instead of treating them simply as human beings, and von Trier, who used two retarded people to introduce each episode of his television mini-series, The Kingdom, becomes guilty of the very prejudice that his film has so obviously tried to subvert. It’s too bad — the rest of it is hilarious.


THE IDIOTS | Written and directed by LARS VON TRIER | Produced by VIBEKE WINDELOV and VON TRIER | Released by USA Films | At the Nuart

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