What the Hell Happened to the Farrelly Brothers?

There are a lot of people who wish it were still the 1990s: Chris Klein from American Pie, Ace of Base, Jennifer Aniston, the guy who created the Furby, me. But no one pines for the decade that brought us both Saved by the Bell: The College Years and Saved by the Bell: The New Class more than Bobby and Peter Farrelly.

Their new film, Hall Pass, was heavily promoted and starred A-lister Owen Wilson, plus comedy nerd favorites Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, and Stephen Merchant — but it only made $13.4 million at the box office in its opening weekend, finishing #2 behind Gnomeo and Juliet. That’s not an awful first week gross, but it’s nothing spectacular, either, especially considering how popular the brothers once were and that this was billed as their “comeback.” Worst of all: only 22% of that $13.4 million came from people between the ages of 18-24.

So, as the title of the post says, what the hell happened? This past weekend, I watched There’s Something About Mary, Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s biggest hit, for the first time in a decade, wondering whether it still holds up. It’s easy to forget how popular Mary was in 1998: the film made $370 million worldwide, was generally liked by critics (83% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), and Cameron Diaz, who played Mary, was nominated for numerous awards, including Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical at the Golden Globes (which she unfairly lost to Gwyneth Paltow). It even finished #27 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list, one spot ahead of Ghostbusters!

For those who don’t remember, here’s a brief synopsis of Mary: Ted, played by Ben Stiller, has been obsessed with Mary since 1985, when they went to high school together, but hasn’t seen her since Prom Night when he accidentally got his “frank and beans” stuck in his pants zipper. It’s now 1998, and he creepily still pines for her, so Ted hires a private investigator, played by Matt Dillon (if Mary had been made now, James Franco would have been perfect for this role), to track her down. Dillon’s character, Pat, soon becomes one of the many men who fall for Mary. He creates an entire personality based on what he thinks Mary would like him to be, going off of the conversations he’s overheard when she’s speaking to her roommate, Magda, and friends, including a very young looking Sarah Silverman. There’s also Tucker (Lee Evans), who Mary thinks is crippled but turns out to be faking; Ted’s best friend, Dom (Chris Elliot), a seemingly normal guy with a wife and kids who turns out to be faking and actually goes by the name Woogie; and the mysterious “Brett,” who turns out to be NOT faking.

I realized three things after watching the film: a) Cameron Diaz is great in it, b) it really isn’t as funny as I remember it being, and c) Kingpin and Dumb and Dumber are still pretty hilarious. Here are the two main reasons why Mary and all the Farrelly Brothers’ subsequent movies have failed, both critically and commercially, as well as comically.

Shock Humor

The Farrelly Brothers have written a handicapped individual, either psychically or mentally, into nearly every one of their films, from Tucker and Mary’s brother Warren, to the multiple-personality Charlie/Hank and dwarf limo driver in Me, Myself, & Irene, to Jason Alexander’s vestigial tail in Shallow Hal, to the conjoined Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in Stuck On You, to nearly every character in The Ringer, which they produced. My problem with this isn’t that they’re overly cruel or make fun of those who, for instance, can’t walk or speak properly (although there’s a bit of that in Mary); it’s that they’re used an easy, “shocking” gimmick to draw sympathy and tell an easy joke.

While I suppose Pat cheating in a game of Checkers against an “Exceptional Person,” as the movie calls them, is the Brothers way of showing us, “The handicap shouldn’t be treated any differently than anyone else,” a point Matt and Trey have made many times on South Park, it’s tough to look past the fact that Warren, who’s notably played by a non-handicapped actor, seems to exist only to show how good of a guy Ted is. When two bullies pick on Warren, who’s looking to find his baseball, they tell him that he should actually go up to a girl and ask, “Have you seen my wiener?” The girl’s boyfriend gets pissed off at Warren (even in 1985, would anyone actually pick a fight with someone mentally challenged?), and in comes Good Guy Ted to save the day. There’s also a painfully unfunny scene where Tucker, who hasn’t shown his true identity to Mary yet, is walking around with assistance from crutches and drops his keys on the floor. He wobbles his way to pick them up, and this goes on for a good minute. It’s tough not to feel embarrassed for everyone involved. It’s not that jokes about handicapped can’t be funny (again: see, South Park); it’s just that they need to serve a purpose.

The other big shock joke in the film is that Mary’s father is black for no particular reason, other than it’s supposed to be amusing that a suburban otherwise-white family would have an African-American dad. They would repeat this same gag in Me, Myself, & Irene, where all of Jim Carrey’s kids are black, as well as grossly obese.

The Farrelly Brothers thought they had a good idea, and kept doing it over and over again, until the shock was little more than a pinch. By the time they got to The Ringer, about Johnny Knoxville pretending to be handicapped so he could enter the Special Olympics, it felt like they had already done something similar many times before. But this is just a small reason why their popularity has faded. The big one is…

Gross-Out Humor

The main reason Mary became so popular (and why it doesn’t hold up much today) is because of the numerous gross-out scenes. There are close-ups of the raisin-like breasts of Magda and Ted’s scrotum over his penis; a dog is drugged and temporarily killed by Pat, only to be brought back to life thanks to some electrical shock; the same dog bites Ted’s penis and won’t let go until being thrown out the window (I’m pretty sure All That owns that joke); Ted gets snagged in the mouth by Warren’s fishhook; Dom/Woogie has disgusting boil-marks all over his face; and, of course, the famous masturbation scene, also known as the first time most of us probably saw semen on-screen (hopefully…). Ted’s about to go on a date for the first time in years, and upon Dom’s suggestion, he needs to “choke the chicken,” “spank the monkey,” “flog the dolphin,” etc. So, before meeting Mary, he does, and it sounds awfully squishy. Not sure why, but it does. After he finishes, Ted looks to clear up the mess, except there isn’t any, or at least he can’t find it. When Mary knocks on his motel door, he’s freaking out and doesn’t figure out where it went until she asks the immortal question, “Is that hair gel?”

In 1998, this all felt shocking, and the masturbation scene can still elicit some awkward giggles. But now, we’ve seen Jason Biggs fucking a pie, a group of college kids jacking off a dog and feeding its semen to some rival students, a spy from the future drinking literal shit that he thinks is coffee, a brother and sister making out with another, an old man passing away during a mud wrestling match against a beautiful young woman, two puppets fucking, a chicken wedged into someone’s ass, and the Jackass series (and that’s just in comedies; let’s not forget about the mainstream success of torture porn, etc.), so Mary feels a little safe by comparison. If your gross-out movie doesn’t gross anyone out, what’s the point?

It’s not entirely the Farrelly Brother’s fault, of course; like most early innovators, their creativity was widely recycled, lessening its initial impact (like the camera tricks in The Matrix). And also like most people who jumpstart a thematic revolution, they tried to repeat their own magic, and desperately failed: Me, Myself, & Irene, Say It Isn’t So, Shallow Hall, Stuck on You, Fever Pitch, The Ringer, and The Heartbreak Kid all range from mediocre to downright awful. They just haven’t been able to re-find what made them so popular and daring in the ‘90s, and Hall Pass, from what I’ve read, sounds no different. It’s no wonder the film’s about mid-life crises…

Josh Kurp thinks Jonathan Richman’s singing narrator is probably the film’s best joke.

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