Farrellys, Peter and Bobby: Comedic Touch

The screen career of writers-directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly is marked by two clearly divided chapters: Before and after “There’s Something About Mary,” their smash hit that redefined the romantic comedy and extended considerably the genre’s range and its “permissible” themes.

The siblings made their directorial debut in 1994, with Dumb and Dumber, co-written by Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan, which starred Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels and earned over $340 million globally. Their follow-up bowling spoof Kingpin (1996), also scripted by Fanaro and Nathan, featured Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid.

The Farrellys are not exactly an overnight success. Before Dumb and Dumber, they jointly co-wrote 15 screenplays and two episodes Seinfeld. Even so, their earlier pictures don’t provide any indication of the exuberant vitality and deft writing that distinguishes There’s Something About Mary as one of the funniest–and most commercial–comedies of the entire decade.

The pair had pursued different lines of education. Bobby (40, and younger by a year than Peter) earned a B.S. degree in Geological Engineering, while Peter attended Columbia’s Creative Writing Program. Bobby’s engineering background may account for the precision with which the gags in their films are constructed. And there’s no doubt that, at this juncture of their careers, the Farrellys acquit themselves better as scripters than helmers. They need to acquire better technical skills, to trust the camera more in visual matters. Often one gets the impression that they just stand back and indulge their actors, and that comic payoffs misfire, because the camera is in the wrong place.

The Farrellys’ work represents a breath of fresh air when placed against Hollywood’s mainstream comedies. American comedies of recent years have been mechanical retreads of old formulas. Filmmakers fail to recognize that it’s hard to make screwball comedy in the 1990s, when the norms and manners that gave rise to those conventions no longer exist in the first place.

The Ivan Reitman-Arnold Schwarzenegger high-concept comedies (Twins, Junior) seem to have run their course, partly because Arnold is not young anymore and partly because their films are not sufficiently funny or audacious for today’s audiences. Efforts to bring back the Tracy-Hepburn type of comedy, as directed by George Cukor and others, have also failed, as was evident in Legal Eagles and I Love Trouble. Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies have commercial appeal, but her work is too retro and moviesh. You’ve Got Mail masquerades as a new romance for the computer age, but basically it’s an inferior remake of Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.

The strength of American comedy has always been in breaking taboos. Indeed, the Farrellys have taken bathroom humor and gross out gags to a whole new level, one in which potentially offensive subjects, such as masturbation and physical disability, feature prominently. Political correctness is anathema in Farrelly’s oeuvre, which is replete with inappropriate and reprehensible punch lines. Their unapologetic humor is a peculiar combination of brutality and wholesomeness, lowbrow and highbrow, but it’s decidedly not mean-spirited.

In Dumb and Dumber, the humor revolved around laxatives, bodily functions and physical pratfalls, and in Kingpin, there was a nasty parody of the Got Milk ads. There’s Something About Mary reps a point of departure, for the Farrellys and their collaborators (Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) structure their smart yarn around a sexy woman (Cameron Diaz) who’s the ultimate definition of cool, beer-drinking and sports-minded just like the boys.

In Mary, rude humor is put to the service of workable ideas. Viewers laughed so hard throughout that they almost forgot that the movie was not about sex but about love, about the fantasy shared by adolescents of reliving amorous obsessions, of reuniting with highschool sweethearts.

Furthermore, even if one takes the dog-in-flames, the zipper, the hair and the serial killer jokes out of the film, its structure is so ingenious, its characterizations so sharp, that it’s still a robust comedy. Unlike Dumb and Dumber, which was a plotless series of skits celebrating provincialism and stupidity, Mary boasts an intricate narrative, logically divided into acts and linearly progressing toward an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

The male characters in Mary seem to have learned Carrey and Daniels’ mistakes in the grab-bag Dumb and Dumber: They do not go all out with their histrionics. Mary, just like Dumb and Dumber, shows love for silliness, but the silliness is not mindless, which may explain why cerebral critics placed the movie on their Ten-Best List.

George Abbott once observed that humor should flow naturally out of the straight-faced playing of the plot. Indeed, In Mary, the Farrellys demonstrate ability to build hilariously comic situations around engaging characters in a yarn in which raucous low humor and verbal and visual wit burst with wild energy. It may sound paradoxical, but one of the Farrellys’ unique qualities–and saving grace–is the talent to situate outrageously bad taste amidst good-natured innocence.

With only a few pictures to their credit, it may be premature to celebrate the siblings’ career. Nonetheless, each of their movies has shown a comic sensibility distinctive enough to warrant them the label the Farrelly touch.

This essay was written in 1999