Bobby Farrelly’s and Peter Farrelly’s There’s Something About Mary , from a screenplay by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss and the Messrs. Farrelly, based on a story by Mr. Decter and Mr. Strauss, turns out to be low-down dirty and grossly funny far beyond the borders of what passes for good taste even in the zero-media-standards 90’s. Mary proves, among other things, that Cameron Diaz is well on her way to a deserved female stardom, fragile as that status is in an industry mentally retarded by moronic machismo. The Farrelly brothers may never replace the Coen brothers in the Sundance pantheon, but after Dumb and Dumber (1994), Kingpin (1996) and now Mary , they stand virtually alone as the purveyors of a fine-tuned outrageousness that has young people rolling in the aisles, and old geezers like me reluctantly succumbing to the power of sheer excess to turn chuckles into guffaws. However, Mary is not nearly as hilarious as Dumb and Dumber with its one-time-only magical comedy team of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels.
Nonetheless, Mary is remarkable for all the sick and politically incorrect sight gags it gets away with in its rule-breaking romp through the supposedly sacred laws of what makes people laugh, and what doesn’t. Ergo, if a man slips on a banana peel, that’s funny. If he breaks his leg in the process, that isn’t. Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther series buried that axiom back in the late 60’s. Ben Stiller, as Mary’s most persistent and most persecuted pursuer, becomes in this one picture the masochistic equivalent in the 90’s of Eddie Bracken in Preston Sturges’ classic 1944 romantic farces, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero .
Mr. Stiller’s character gets off to a roaring start just before the high school prom when he gets his most delicate member painfully caught in his zipper to the point that he is a bleeding shambles as he is carted away from Mary’s home in an ambulance to the amusement of the entire neighborhood. Why do we laugh at this horrible catastrophe? Perhaps because it surpasses any of the horrors that befell most of us in that period of our lives when we were crushed by our crushes. For younger moviegoers with more immediate insecurities than their smart-ass-spokesman rappers address, the nebbish hero’s penile crucifixion serves as a voyeuristic catharsis.
Despite the hero’s aborted first date with Mary, the school dream girl, and her subsequent departure from Rhode Island to Florida, which take her out of his life for 13 years, he cannot get her out of his mind. In desperation, he enlists the help of a sleazy private investigator played by a villainously mustachioed Matt Dillon to locate the mysteriously secretive Mary. The investigator becomes fixated on her in his deviously manipulative way with wiretaps and other surveillance devices. He lies to the hero about Mary’s marital status (she is still single), her looks (she has blossomed) and her profession (she has become an orthopedic surgeon) and moves to Miami to try to win her for himself. When the hero discovers the deception, he sets out to confront the investigator, and resume his tenuous relationship with Mary.
On his way to Florida, our hopelessly kindhearted hero picks up a hitchhiker. Our hero is just perceptive enough to realize that his head-twitching passenger is not playing with a full deck. Little does he know that his passenger is an escaped homicidal mental patient who is about to slit his benefactor’s throat. Fortuitously, our hero has to stop at a rest stop to take a piss (shades of Buffalo 66 ). Stumbling from the frying pan into the fire, as it were, he trips over a gay participant in the nocturnal revels in the bushes adjoining the rest stop. With impeccable sad-sack timing, an innocent “straight” man with a full bladder is found sprawled on the ground in a “vice squad” dragnet of the area, and is trundled off to the hoosegow, where he is lovingly embraced by his newfound companions in pleasure.
This lightly depicted atmosphere of gay abandon is soon replaced by the darker charge of murdering his hitchhiking companion, whose “cello case” had actually contained the hacked-to-pieces remains of a previous victim. In a faintly comical misunderstanding lifted from Jonathan Lynn’s My Cousin Vinny (1992), our badgered hero “confesses” to the crime of picking up a hitchhiker with enough ambiguous amplification to make it seem that he is a lighthearted serial killer and butcher. As part of the pattern of systemic reflex abuse of the hero, an enraged detective bangs the apparent fiend’s head on the table again and again. Curiously, for all their slapstick excesses, the Farrelly brothers reveal a light touch in allowing a thin veneer of perpetual paranoia to remain almost as a second skin on all of Mary’s suitors, and they eventually number five of the most ridiculous male aspirants to the body and soul of the miraculous Mary.
Mary, of course, is much too good to be true. Not only is she dazzlingly beautiful. She is also kind, compassionate, noble and a guy’s kind of gal with a profound appreciation of all sports, non-imported beer and the ability to pick up stakes at a moment’s notice to wander across the earth. From the beginning, Mary was shown to be deeply attached to her mentally challenged brother, and to be cool about the fact of her black stepfather. In this way, Mary is immunized against the profusion of hysterically funny routines amounting to parodies of the physically disabled and their angry insistence that they can perform normal functions, a series of increasingly gruesome pet tricks with a terrier doped with speed, and more insensitive language about the mentally handicapped than the thought police could ever imagine in their censorious fantasies. Through all the muck and the mire, Ms. Diaz’s Mary shines as a vision of virtue and loveliness such as to make grown men grovel at her feet ignominiously and hilariously.
Our Favorite Swashbuckler Has Gone a Little Soft
Martin Campbell’s The Mask of Zorro , from a screenplay by John Eskow, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio, based on a story by Mr. Elliott, Mr. Rossio and Randall Johnson, strives with all its might to resurrect the swashbuckling and bodice-
ripping adventures of yesteryear, while at the same time fulfilling a populist political agenda with implications for our own greed-driven times. Zorro has traditionally served as a Latino version of the Scarlet Pimpernel, one moment a foppish nobleman, and the next a masked avenger for his oppressed people. Created by pulp writer Johnston McCulley in 1919, Zorro was incarnated on the screen by Douglas Fairbanks in 1920 and by Tyrone Power in 1940. I’ve never seen the Fairbanks, and by the time I got around to seeing the Power, I was too old to enjoy his excruciating earnestness. Hence, I have no fond childhood memories of Zorro to distract me from the rigorous discipline of my vocation as a magistrate of the movies.
Actually, the Zorro of pulp legend is combined in the current portrayal by Antonio Banderas with the real-life legend of Mexican bandit Joaquin Murrieta, and I do have fond childhood memories of William Wellman’s 1936 The Robin Hood of El Dorado , in which the romanticized Murrieta avenges himself against the Anglos for the murder of his wife, but, in the end, is killed along with his followers for the unintended death of a Texas cowboy’s betrothed. Heady stuff, when you’re 8 years old. (This is not the time or place to consider the manifold virtues of Peter Medak’s Zorro, the Gay Blade , 1981, with George Hamilton sparkling in a dual role from both sides of the plate, nor of the wildly varied Zorros of Alain Delon in Zorro , 1975, John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again ,1937, Reed Hadley in Zorro’s Fighting Legion , 1939, and even Linda Stirling as Zorro’s whip-lashing sister in Zorro’s Black Whip , 1944.)
Mr. Campbell and his associates have clearly intended to transcend all previous Zorros with lavish production values, a carefully constructed script with ample motivation for the behavior of the characters, and hordes of brutalized peon gold-diggers. The acting is more Masterpiece Theater than rough and ready. Indeed, Anthony Hopkins as the original Zorro, alias Don Diego de la Vega, and Antonio Banderas as the ragged Murrieta transformed by Don Diego into the new Zorro 20 years later, bring a zestful style and panache to their otherwise circumscribed roles. Catherine Zeta Jones as Don Diego’s lost daughter and the new Zorro’s love is a real find with her flashing eyes, acting skill and more than adequate bosom. Even the villains-Stuart Wilson’s California-stealing Don Rafael Montero and Matt Letscher’s ghoulishly sadistic Capt. Harrison Love-are more complex creations than the one-dimensional baddies in Titanic . The stunt work with swordplay and rope-swinging acrobatics is beyond reproach. There is really nothing wrong with the movie except its deadly, stately pace, which finally drains all the excitement from it.
All the time I was watching it unmoved and uninvolved, it suddenly came to me what was missing: Sergio Leone and his stylistic epiphanies with Third World revenge fantasies! The provocations are there for both Zorros, Don Diego having lost his wife and daughter because of the wickedness of Don Rafael, and the junior Zorro having seen his brother’s head preserved in the Anglo captain’s wine jar. Leone would have brought these horrors closer to the final accounting through his lyrically climactic close-ups. Mr. Campbell’s Zorro just plods along in linear fashion, and ends weakly with a fairy-tale domestic idyll. It’s a pity, because the entire effort is on the side of grown-up decency and morality in the service of romantic adventure.