There is a secret to the method behind the glorious madness of the early work by filmmakers and brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly. When they were in the midst of their best run of creative work, they did it on their terms, their way—and the results spoke for themselves, none as loudly as There’s Something About Mary.
There is a through line to the work by Peter and Bobby Farrelly, but it’s so subtle in the way it works that it’s easy for casual viewers to not only miss it, but to even misinterpret it. It’s easy to say that a film has heart, but the only way you can really judge the content of that heart is by paying attention to the real targets of the comedy. The Farrellys may deal in broad, outrageous, often scatological humor, but they use the most lacerating part of their wit to puncture truly deserving subjects.
How do you take something that dark and transform it into a film that played like a weapon in theaters? For viewers who weren’t there, it may be hard to imagine the reaction to the film’s biggest set pieces. One of the reasons people went back to see Mary repeatedly in theaters or on home video was simply to hear the jokes they missed because the audience was so busy melting down from laughter. It’s been said that horror and comedy are closely related genres because they both depend on evoking an involuntary reaction from the audience, and the Farrellys knew there was only one way to fine-tune that involuntary reaction: test screenings. Some filmmakers fear the process, but the Farrellys are strong believers that the best joke is the best joke, no matter where it comes from.
While they are the final arbiters of funny in their films, the siblings are impressively collaborative. The Mary screenplay is credited to Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, as well as the Farrellys, and they have always used roundtable punch-ups to get a script ready for a shoot. In essence, they test the thing on both ends, first by running the script past their funniest friends, daring them to make jokes and scenes better, and then again once they’ve shot the film, trying different combinations of moments with audiences until they find exactly the right cut.
But when you look closer, when you really consider the way they cast their films in both starring and supporting roles, the truth about them is apparent. The Farrellys are relentless champions of the unseen, the underdogs, the less-thans. They have been remarkably progressive about hiring people with disabilities and then casting them in roles where the disability has nothing to do with the film. It is important to the Farrellys that the worlds in which their comedies take place actually look like the world around us, and they understand how potent that erasure can be, where even the extras in the background are all homogenized and perfect. They understand that there is no merit in heaping more scorn on people who have already been marginalized. Instead, the Farrellys work to puncture and deflate anyone who exploits or capitalizes those people.
The Farrellys have been remarkably progressive about hiring people with disabilities and then casting them in roles where the disability has nothing to do with the film.
Another part of the secret behind the enduring qualities of There’s Something About Mary is the way they build an ongoing family in their films, both behind the camera and in front. It makes sense. The Farrellys are a family affair, and that’s true of everyone they invite to come play with them on these films. It’s an almost embarrassingly great cast, with Diaz at her very best here. Mary may not be fully aware of the impact she has on everyone around her, but she’s no dummy, and that’s a very hard line to play in comedy. Stiller has to navigate an equally tricky path as Ted, because he does some terrible things in the film. Still, when he’s set next to the characters played by Lee Evans, Chris Elliott or Matt Dillon at his absolute sleaziest, Ted ends up looking like a saint. That’s no accident. The Farrellys, at their best, manage to make blisteringly raunchy films that are sweeter than the sweetest Disney movie, and that inherent kindness that is baked into their work is what buys them permission to push things as far as they do. There are plenty of other people working in the same type of shock comedy, but very few have ever been able to muster the genuine heart of these blue-collar Boston boys.