A man gets a chance to meet up with his dream girl from highschool, even though his date with her back then was a complete disaster.
The thing about the Farrelly brothers' humour, is that it really shouldn't be funny. We shouldn't be laughing at disabled people, dying dogs, or an unfortunate accident involving our hero, a zipper and his crown jewels. But it's in that scene, where Ted's prom night plans are foiled by the "frank and beans" incident (scarily, based on the experience of a Farrelly friend) that the affectionately sadistic, improbably hilarious and decidedly incorrect humour of There's Something About Mary is set. Irresistibly. As the tagline so succinctly put it: "Warning: The guys who did Dumb And Dumber and Kingpin bring you a love story."
Writer-director siblings Peter and Bobby had already made "Farrelly" something of a byword for gross-out guy comedies when they came across the Mary script from TV writers Ed Decter and JohnJ. Strauss (Boy Meets World). Together, the four rewrote the script. Perhaps, it was the commercial sensibility of the writers that helped give Mary wider appeal, perhaps the brothers had just grown up a bit — but there's no doubt that the collaboration resulted in wider appeal and more critical acclaim than previous Farrelly titterfests. Set pieces like the prom night saga have taken their place in modern comic history, working as more than just a series of unrelated gags. The building ridiculousness of this sequence works as a neat introduction to the film's premise: a well-meaning person unintentionally invites more and more chaos at every turn. Or more accurately, two people: both the blissfully ignorant Mary and the publicly humiliated Ted.
The choice to cast a comedian, Stiller — then best-known for his Saturday Night Live sketches and The Ben Stiller Show—against a Hollywood belle, Diaz, worked beautifully with the film's theme of opposites (awkwardness versus grace, lies versus honesty, basically, imperfection versus perfection). Mary is gorgeous, kind, clever, talented — hey boys, she even likes sport. She's admired by a series of increasingly flawed eccentrics (Stiller's geeky Ted, Dillon's goofy spy Pat, Evans' fraudulent disabled architect/pizza boy, Elliott's hive-ridden Dom/Woogie) and also by Warren's fellow "retards", as PC-illiterate Pat calls them. Diaz gamely deadpans her wide-eyed way through this prom-queen-with-a-heart role, earning herself a rep for quirky fare (further confirmed by Being John Malkovich), as well as several awards. The Farrellys were so keen to cast her, they put back the film's start date to accommodate her schedule. "Cameron is Mary," asserts Peter. "Like Mary, Cameron seerns like the ultimate woman. Every guy on the set was crazy about her." Peter's praise for Stiller is similarly high. "I can think of no-one other than Ben who could have played Ted. We really have to be behind Ted because the world dumps on him. Ben is one of the best comedic, reactive actors out there."
The fact that the geek gets the girl — Mary chooses Ted over similarly "perfect" jock Brett (real-life pro quarterback Brett Favre, a typical Farrelly casting) — makes this an unusually bloke-friendly romcom. To add to its unisex appeal (and hence much of its box-office success), it is at once both one of the most romantic gross-out comedies, and one of the most gross romantic comedies. Stiller has said that the talent of the salesmen-turned-directors lies in relaxing actors enough to do things they wouldn't normally do — and that when he saw the movie, he himself couldn't believe what he'd agreed to do.
That the audience shares this sense of shock and disbelief at the film's extremes certainly adds to its humour. But it also serves as a reminder that this is Only A Film — setting it apart from other romcoms in its relative emotional distance. The Cat Ballou-style musical plot updates from Farrelly regular Jonathan Richman and the end credits in which the entire cast sing along to Build Me Up, Buttercup, fulfil the same purpose. That There's Something About Mary manages to be fairly light on emotion, yet distinctly memorable, is a tribute to the force of its comic structure. It wears its influences (from the Marx Brothers to Porky's) on its sleeve, but wraps them in a tight, original plot where every joke has a purpose as well as a punchline. Making such a film in 1998 also opened up the opportunity to exploit the knowing, post-PC humour that the MTV generation so embraced (later echoed somewhat less successfully in the Farrellys' Me, Myself And Irene). You only have to look at American Pie and Road Trip to see the influence it's had on the teen movie.
There's Something About Mary brought the gross-out flick out of the grubby toilet cubicle of frat boy lite, and into the shiny, blue-skied world of romantic comedy where goodness is (finally) rewarded and dreams really do come true. It's just that the Farrelly brothers' dreams are that bit naughtier than most.
An all-out opera of gag-inducing slapstick. Genius.