In Me, Myself & Irene, The Farrelly Brothers Lose Their Gamble

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:56

    Watching the coming attractions at a beach theater two summers ago, I saw back-to-back trailers for upcoming comedies, and was struck by their differences. The mild, sorta-amusing one for Tamara Jenkins' The Slums of Beverly Hills was completely clobbered by the three-minute laff riot advertising the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary, which was flat-out hilarious and had the audience screeching with laughter from first till last. Which was the better, funnier movie? Well, that was obvious, right?

    Not really. As it turned out, I really liked Slums of Beverly Hills, a modest but richly idiosyncratic comedy of the sort that people discover on tape and go, "This is great?how come I never heard of it?" The answer in part is that its humor is subtle and solidly based on character. It has funny scenes and passages and moments, not knee-slapping gags. It can't be summed up in a punchy trailer.

    The thing that shocked me about Something About Mary, on the other hand, is that every single funny thing in the movie was in the trailer. Literally. If you've seen both, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean. Ben Stiller's bad wig and giddy embarrassments, Matt Dillon's teeth, Cameron Diaz's Dippity-Do substitute, the dog flying out the window: they're all there in the preview. If you've seen the trailer and expect the movie to be crammed from start to finish with the same kind of funny stuff, you're bound to be disappointed, because you've already seen the funny stuff?all three minutes of it slammed into a mini-movie that's undeniably sidesplitting.

    The other hundred or so minutes of Mary are often mind-bogglingly dull and inept. I was stunned that more reviews at the time didn't point this out. (When a film's looking like a major hit, too many critics fear being left off the bandwagon.) Clearly, the Farrelly Brothers have one major talent: concocting gags, usually of the lewd 'n' crude variety, that make you drop your popcorn or fall out of your seat laughing. Just as clearly, they have a severely underdeveloped sense of what comes between the gags. You can have a pretty good nap waiting for some of their movies' laughs.

    In some senses, the Farrellys are the logical outcome of a marketing system that bases everything on the 30-second tv spot, which is an even more condensed version of the three-minute trailer. And it's here that Hollywood's contempt for its audience, and that audience's corruption by tv's attention-deficit mentality, can seem most pronounced. Yet the Farrellys aren't really typical of Hollywood. The major studios would generally deploy squadrons of writers to assure that there are not yawning stretches of tedious terrain between the good yuks. The Farrellys earned the right to do things their own way when their first movie, Dumb and Dumber, went through the roof. Now they rise or fall on their own inspiration, and have no one to blame if the souffle goes plop.

    Each of their films is a gamble, a fairly simple one: if those three minutes of gags are truly, gut-bustingly great, then most viewers will forgive the tepid and clumsy exposition that connects them. If, on the other hand, the gags are even a few degrees shy of superlative, then the dull patches will drag down the whole to the point that people won't run home to call their friends to recommend the movie through still-drying tears of mirth.

    In Me, Myself & Irene, they lose the gamble, but not horribly so. In fact, the film can boast a bit more consistency than the Farrellys have shown before; its dead patches aren't quite as dead, and some of the middling-funny bits are actually quite good. But the high points aren't as high?the laugh-o-meter seldom plunges deep into the red?and that makes all the difference. The movie swats doubles and triples in a ballpark where, ultimately, only home runs count.

    Still, it's hard to dislike zestily lowbrow filmmakers who so casually and decisively distance themselves from Hollywood, living and working in Rhode Island, where most of Irene was shot. Yet a certain degree of cultural cluelessness seems to come with that bucolic remove, if this movie's apparent stab at sociological commentary is any indication. Its story has Jim Carrey?star of the Farrellys' inaugural hit?as longtime Rhode Island state trooper Charlie Baileygates, a simmering if unlikely cauldron of racial ressentiment.

    Two decades back, it seems, Charlie was a beaming young bridegroom who swept his bride off to his waterside cottage only to find his bliss immediately squashed by their limo driver, a liveried black dwarf (African-American midget? I'm not sure of the proper terminology.) When Charlie asked, "Do you people accept checks?" the driver took it as a racial insult and started beating him about the shins and ankles. Charlie's efforts to dispel the racial inference only made matters worse; the dwarf thought his size was being dissed.

    Happily, Charlie's bride was able to stop the violence, but at a cost. The driver turned out to be a moonlighting professor from Brown (a perfect touch, you have to admit) whose large intellect worked like an Afrodisiac on the sensibility of Mrs. Baileygates. When the newlyweds' triplets are born, they are quite noticeably black.

    Cut to 17 years later. Charlie's wife has run off with the brainy dwarf, leaving him with three hulking black sons who have the intellects of Einsteins and the vocabularies of rap-music thugs. Charlie loves them dearly and in general has long since stopped resisting his lot in life, which is precisely the problem: he's so nice, apologetic and accommodating that everyone in town treats him like a doormat. For a community authority figure, that's a serious handicap.

    But one day, he swallows one insult too many and just snaps. Out of his strangled id pops Hank, an alter ego with a guttural drawl like Clint Eastwood's who slaps people around and takes absolutely no guff from anyone. For all intents and purposes, this is where the curiously retrograde and poorly articulated racial-resentment theme of Irene ends. What the Farrellys have wrought is no species of satire (does Rhode Island have black people, anyway?); it's a split-personality comedy of a fairly familiar and predictable sort.

    Into this obvious premise eventually comes the eponymous Irene (Renee Zellweger), who's on the lam from her mob boyfriend and his death-dealing goons, yadda yadda. The film's remaining hour-plus, as anyone who's seen a previous Farrelly movie can't help but anticipate, is a chase caper with regular stops for gross-out jokes and Irene's dithering over whether she's with Hank or Charlie, and whether she's just maybe falling in love with one (or both) of them.

    For Carrey, the movie inevitably comes off as a backwards step. Since Dumb and Dumber he's grown remarkably as a performer, taking on such risky and rewarding projects as The Cable Guy (a very underrated film), Man on the Moon and the brilliant Truman Show. Here, it's like he's been sent back to elementary school. He's funny and impressively skillful at demarcating the two faces of Baileygates, but so what? We know he can do it, and so does he; there are no surprises at any turn. Ditto, to some extent, Zellweger, who has a sure comic knack and loads of natural charm, but who's not asked to stretch to the zany, cartoonish heights that Cameron Diaz reached so memorably in There's Something About Mary.

    The Farrellys' trademark gags, meanwhile, concern such things as dog poop, a dying cow, dildos and a chicken whose head gets lodged in a singularly unfortunate place. Barnyard humor, to be sure. If it were only a bit more unexpected and eye-popping, the brothers would no doubt have another huge hit on their hands. But the season's truly funny low comedy is Todd Phillips' Road Trip, a fresher version of the Farrellys' stock in trade. Me, Myself & Irene feels a bit old hat in comparison. But you probably knew that already: the trailer isn't that funny.

    Shaft Directed by John Singleton

    At this point in the summer, the critic should admit that his reactions are perhaps much different from the general viewer's due to a seasonal professional peril: dumbness fatigue.

    John Singleton's Shaft, a revival of the old blaxploitation series with Samuel L. Jackson in the role created by Richard Roundtree, is a big, flashy, expertly made action comedy that will probably be a huge hit. If I'd seen it in February, I might have counted myself among its fans. But after too many recent movies that offer little beyond peanut-gallery yuks and thrills, I was simply grateful that Shaft isn't more punishingly formulaic than it is.

    I'm a fan of Singleton, even though his films have ranged from great (Boyz N the Hood) to good (Higher Learning) to lame (Poetic Justice) to severely problematic (Rosewood). With Shaft, for the first time slumming in the realm of big-budget genre fare, he acquits himself as well as any skilled, versatile craftsman might: the film's action is expertly staged and just brutal enough to give the comedy an unexpectedly bitter edge, and the whole enterprise manages a careful balance between gritty urban realism and fanciful, larger-than-life fun. But as an accomplishment, this is still on the level of Dick Tracy.

    Granted, the film plays the race card more imaginatively and purposefully than Me, Myself & Irene does. Shaft (who's essayed with suitable iconic sweep by Jackson) swings into action after a vicious white yuppie (Christian Bale) kills an unsuspecting black bar-goer. But the movie's real racial charge comes in its number-two villain, Dominican drug dealer Peoples Hernandez.

    Hernandez is played by Jeffrey Wright in a performance that's flat-out astonishing on two levels. First, it's an over-the-top, crotch-grabbing caricature of the sort that you can't imagine Hollywood countenancing in a black character nowadays. (Have Hispanics joined Arabs as a minority that the major studios feel safe in ridiculing? Perhaps so.) The other thing, though, is that Wright's work in this dubious role is so brilliant that it effectively steals the movie from everyone else, lock, stock and two smoking barrels.

    Last year, I opined that Wright deserved a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil. This year he's done it again. But will Hollywood risk honoring an extraordinary actor for a role that veers so close to racial japery? Stay tuned.

    Reeling Whither Film Comment? The venerable bimonthly, which is published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has recently acquired its fifth editor in a bit under four decades. The current (May-June) issue is the first under the stewardship of editor Gavin Smith, and while the writing's quality is up to the usual standards, a number of things about the presentation are immediately striking. One is the cover's use of the royal "we." As in "cinema as we know it." Or "our movie of the moment." (And a brief moment that one was! The pertinent article hails the "breakthrough" of Claire Denis' Beau Travail, an insta-flop that closed in New York before the issue hit the stands.)

    Actually, the cover's pronoun usage doesn't seem royal so much as it does a bit high-school cliquish?as if the magazine were called Our Cinema Clubhouse ("where the cool people tell you what to think"). That impression is reinforced by two new departments inside. "Opening Shots" offers info-mcnuggets that purvey insiderish attitude ("five must-sees") and tout the work of the magazine's friends and favorites. And "FSLC Seen," a true embarrassment, mosaics snapshots of Film Society folk hobnobbing with filmmakers and celebs at social events.

    As for substantial issues, "Opening Shots" includes a silly "Lukewarm list" of topics the magazine presumably doesn't care for; number one on it is "the digital revolution." Thus is the biggest sea change to hit the movies since the advent of sound dismissed with a cocktail-party yawn.

    Is a magazine called Film Comment really going to watch film disappear from public spaces without deigning to comment on it? Actually, Smith has a great opportunity to bring the magazine into the 21st century by expanding its traditional auteurist focus to include discussions of things like technological changes, corporate and festival politics, and many other matters that now affect the art.

    Another good idea would be to court controversy by opening the magazine to disagreement. Writing about David Lynch's The Straight Story in Artforum earlier this year, sometime FC contributor Howard Hampton tweaked critics for preferring the kinds of foreign gods that FC is famous for championing to homegrown visionaries like Lynch. Is this kind of challenge bad? In fact, debating rather than assuming the value of various filmmakers could blow the dust off of some outworn assumptions. Sure, it might trouble the calm of the clubhouse temporarily, but readers?remember them?? might actually like it.