What could I learn about one movie from watching ten Farrelly Brothers comedies in ten days, I wondered?
Comic tradition in Hollywood is to ask the audience to identify with the main character, and one cheap way of getting the audience on your side as a writer or director is to introduce a character with a disability and have the protagonist defend him or her. This is what the Farrelly Brothers did, by their own admission, in There’s Something About Mary. To their credit they’ve been on the front line of casting actors with disabilities ever since, to such an extent that the producers of one of their films actually told them going in, “no cripples.” What started as a shortcut to get viewers to like Ben Stiller’s character in Mary turned into something more meaningful, and if audiences don’t know whether or not to be offended by the portrayal and casting of people with disabilities in Farrelly Brothers movies, it may be because they’re unused to seeing disability on film, period.
Compare the Farrellys’ first film with their later ones and you’ll notice a distinction between laughing with someone and laughing at them. The scene in Dumb and Dumber in which Harry Dunne sells Petey-the-pet-bird to Billy-the-blind-kid with its head taped on is played for laughs at Billy’s expense. Later Farrelly Brothers movies, instead of casting a child actor who wasn’t blind in real life, will use disabled actors in roles like Billy’s, while filling out the cast with disabled extras whether the script calls for them or not. Later films will also gauge a character’s moral worth based on how well he or she treats characters with disabilities, asking us to judge Matt Dillon’s character in Mary (who refers to them as “retards”) while rooting for Ben Stiller’s, for example.
Most Farrelly Brothers comedies ask you to laugh at innocent, usually ignorant, protagonists while sympathizing with their sentimental dramas. What sets their best work apart from other gross-out comedies is the absense of a heteronormative male anchor to stabilize the proceedings for an audience used to casual sexism and bigotry. Peter & Bobby Farrelly populate their films with freaks, losers, and outsiders, asking us to love Harry & Lloyd (Dumb and Dumber), Bob & Walt (Stuck on You), or Larry, Curly, & Moe (The Three Stooges) while laughing at muscle-bound bro-dudes and girls in bikinis. Whenever a Farrelly protagonist is a playboy-operator type, like Hal in Shallow Hal, Eddie in The Heartbreak Kid, or Rick in Hall Pass, he either realizes his mistake, gets his comeuppance, or both. Sometimes (like in Shallow Hal and Hall Pass) the moral of the story drowns out the humor, or the sappiness grates, but at their best, heartfelt sentimentality helps films like Me, Myself, and Irene and Stuck on You to rise above other mainstream comedies of their era.
Often, their movies explore the sociopolitics of high school in the context of adults: bullying, “fitting in,” social stigma, and the fear of rejection that comes from being an outsider. In Stuck on You, Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear play conjoined twins who own a diner on Martha’s Vineyard. Far from being outsiders, however, they’re part of an almost utopian small-town community. Stuck on You’s most memorable scene, a key to the Farrelly universe, occurs at the beginning:
Nearly every Farrelly protagonist fears rejection of one sort or another. In Stuck on You, most of the humor comes from the brothers being in denial about being different but most of the drama comes from Bob (Damon) fearing rejection from his Internet girlfriend and Walt (Kinnear) from the acting community and the public at large. Bob & Walt’s denial is poignant: they’re normal, their actions say—you’re the one with the problem. What difficulties they experience navigating the world are more often the result of discrimination than disability. If gross-out comedies make audiences look at things they’d rather turn away from, then the propensity of the Farrelly Brothers to portray the weak, disabled, or outcast in a positive light is either subversive or brave, and what’s poignant about their work can be summed up in three words, the sum total of an interaction within Stuck on You in which Bob and Walt are heckled from a passing car:
The discrimination Bob & Walt encounter in Hollywood is held in relief by the memory of their Vineyard utopia, which functions, essentially, as a measure of morality, a constant point of comparison to be weighed against the phony perfection and homogeneity of Walt’s Hollywood wonderland.
“Cinema is about establishing a complicity with the other,” said French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie from Cannes last week. In the world of gross-out comedy pioneered by the Farrelly Brothers, the human body is the other, or so goes the truism—but is it a canard? In the world of Stuck on You and the Farrellys at their best, the other is a soda jerk with autism, a line cook prone to panic attacks, or a chronically dissociated cop who can’t stand up for himself; they’re people you or I know in real life, the invisible ones whose stories aren’t told in movies, whose lives get stepped on, their struggles ignored by society—which fears the sad and the weak and shuns them in self defense—their everyday troubles here exaggerated in burlesque for a movie world of grotesquerie and make-believe until their problems become ours. Embrace difference, says the received wisdom; own it, contemporary slapstick icon Melissa McCarthy might say; the best Farrelly Brothers films do their part, however small, to erase it.
Ask yourself, what have the movies lost through the years? Cinema’s ability to fix a moment in perpetuity makes losing a part of itself that much more painful. Memories of silent film, the western, and film noir haunt the cinephile, who, forever playing make-believe in the dark with someone else’s dreams, is forever in search of lost time; any retrieval or remembrance of celluloid past is time regained. An honest cinephilia would look in every stray gag or pratfall for the pantomime that Hollywood forgot. It would look in the ashes of burnt nitrate for traces of Tinseltown’s founding father—Vaudeville—and find laughs in the afterglow of its last remains. Sifting through the embers of slapstick, it would arrive—inevitably, inexplicably, unavoidably—at the Farrelly Brothers.