A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

Archives: Co(s)mic Justice: Cruelty and Comeuppance in Dumb and Dumber To

I went into the theater showing Dumb and Dumber To with no small amount of trepidation. Reviews from trusted sources have been universally unkind, mostly building their reactions around the claim that the movie spends most of its running time recycling old gags. Considering that The Hangover 2 remains one of the worst in-theater experiences I’ve ever had, and that the Farrelly Brothers haven’t had a true hit or comic gem in years, and neither has Jim Carrey, and Jeff Daniels, as great an actor as he is, doesn’t really go in for quality control in many of his projects, I was expecting this to be a phoned-in wet fart of a movie, where at least three quarters of the people responsible for the laughs are cashing in on nostalgia.

I have to remember to thank those reviewers, because they lowered my expectations enough for something like Dumb and Dumber To to actually exceed them. To be fair, the movie still is a wet fart- “wet fart” is perhaps the best possible combination of words to describe this movie- but it’s a wet fart filled with gusto and determination, squeezed out by professional flatulents who really know their work. I’m going to stop using the phrase “wet fart” now. Okay, now. But whatever it was- and I’m willing to admit it could have been the presence of my kid cousins, who are both boys on the cusp of middle school and thus the movie’s ideal audience- I was pleasantly surprised by Dumb and Dumber To.

Which isn’t to say the movie is a comic masterpiece on par with the original- it’s not. Some of the gags are a bit more cartoony than anything the universe of the original would allow- for example, there’s a bit where Harry and Lloyd bathe in outflow from a nuclear plant, and then we see them driving at night, and they’re both glowing green, and there’s no mention of this afterwards, which really calls into question how much we’re supposed to be invested in the various medical problems that crop up later in the movie. There’s nothing as “real” as the moment in the original where it looks like Harry really gets shot. And there are some re-used gags, though they’re not nearly as frequent as the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe they are and I just forgot about their inclusion in the original. The story is basically the same idea of “dimwits get involved in a complex criminal enterprise that is far beyond their powers of understanding,” but that’s a storyline that goes back to the Marx Brothers, and I see no reason to not repeat it here. But on the whole, the script stands on its own, and works as a self-contained story about two dimwits trying to reunite with an estranged daughter so one of them can get a kidney transplant. And it’s entirely build around the principle of comedic payback, which I feel has been one of the Farrelly Brothers’ primary obsessions throughout their moviemaking career.

Comedic payback, which is a pretty intuitive concept- turn on a Tom & Jerry or Roadrunner cartoon and you’ll get a thousand instances. It’s funny when Wile E. Coyote paints a solid wall to look like a tunnel, funnier when the Roadrunner runs through the painting like it actually is a tunnel, and funniest when the coyote tries to follow and runs into a solid wall. Likewise, most of the best setpieces in Dumb and Dumber To are predicated upon an act of cruelty that comes back to bite the person behind it in the face. In fact, one could argue that the entire film is a gag along those lines. There’s a tightness to this screenplay that wasn’t in the original film, where outside of a few throwaway bits, every scene leads logically to the next one, and the reveals at the very end of the movie are based on character traits and backgrounds that we learned in the first act. There’s also an abundance of visual and verbal gags that suggest the Farrelly Brothers worked on the screenplay for quite some time.

And then there’s the Farrelly Brothers’ other major obsession, body humor that verges on body horror. It’s a perfect little encapsulation of their universe when Harry is mistaken for a reclusive super-genius and asked to judge a youth science competition. One of the entrants describes a waste-free society, where all material is re-used with no environmental consequences. “But where does the extra poop go?” Harry asks. That’s basically the side of life the Farrelly Brothers are always asking their audience to confront- if Lloyd pretends to be catatonic for 20 years, who disposes of his waste? If an old lady sees two doofuses break into her nursing home, what is she going to try to get out of them? It’s also what makes the super-cartoony bits feel out of place: there are no filmmakers more likely to show you the ugly side of life and let you know that it’s real. Physical and mental misfits abound in the margins movies- in this one, a bit role is given to a person with Down’s Syndrome, and Lloyd nearly gets into a fight with a paraplegic- but they never use them as the butt of their jokes, just silent commentaries on the sort of reality that mainstream movies rarely ask audiences to confront.

At its heart (and it does have one), Dumb and Dumber and its sequel are both about the types of friendships we have when we’re about ten years old, when friendship consists of elaborate pranks, stupid inside jokes, “games” that are often little more than opportunities to physically assault one another, and beneath it all, the knowledge that this person really likes you and will always have your back. Harry and Lloyd carry it to a grotesque extreme, and stay in the mode well into their fifties, but there’s an essential sweetness there that keeps this particular cinematic wet fart nice and warm in your pants.

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This entry was posted on 16 November 2014 by in The Glowing Screen and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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