What is it about Mary Jenson (Cameron Diaz) that turns seemingly ordinary men into obsessed stalkers? After all, Mary's smart, funny, compassionate and, of course, distractingly beautiful. She seems to have everything, so why can't she meet a decent guy?
On one level, There's Something About Mary is a typical frothy romantic comedy about the search for love in confused times. But, then again, this happens to be the latest offering from gross-out kings Peter and Bobby Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin), so even the typical screwball comedy devices of slapstick and subterfuge are pushed to, and beyond, their usual limits.
Even 13 years after their ill-fated prom date, Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) can't get Mary Jenson out of his mind. Based on the dubious advice of his friend, Dom (Chris Elliott), Ted hires insurance investigator Pat Healy (Matt Dillon) to locate her and report back on her current life. But Healy quickly decides that Mary's quite the find, and gives Ted a bogus report meant to discourage him. Healy then relocates from chilly Provincetown, R.I., to sunny Miami and -- utilizing information gathered from constant surveillance -- begins to mold himself into the role of Mary's ideal man.
Healy runs into trouble when he encounters Mary's close circle: her overly solicitous friend, Tucker (Lee Evans); a British architect; her nosy neighbor, Magda (Lin Shaye); a leather-skinned, dog-kissing widow; and her beloved, mentally retarded brother, Warren (W. Earl Brown).
Directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (who co-wrote the script with sitcom vets Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) smoothly escalate the situation by bringing Ted and Dom to Miami and staging a pitched battle for Mary's affections.
At one point, one of Mary's suitors says that it's not actually her that they're in love with, but the way they see themselves when they're with her. It's a nice little moment of truth in a breezy story where self-delusion and gullibility are the rule.
As Mary, Cameron Diaz has a wonderfully light comic touch and radiant wholesomeness, like a cheerleader channeling Carole Lombard. She's nonplussed by the most bizarre behavior from her cohorts, especially Magda (the anti-Mary), played with vulgar flair by Farrelly regular and Detroit native Lin Shaye.
All the actors are very much in sync with the Farrelly brand of humor, which is unashamedly junior-high guy comedy. Which is not to say it's not funny, because There's Something About Mary is frequently hilarious.
The Farrelly brothers know how to take a small (usually visual) joke and raise the stakes until it's transformed into a crude comic set piece. The first of these, which concerns delicate flesh captured in the zipper of two-toned brown tuxedo pants, sets the tone for what follows.
But as much as they are praised or reviled for pushing the comedy envelope, the Farrellys possess keenly commercial instincts. They astutely walk a fine line: Their movies are gleefully politically incorrect, but not offensive enough to alienate a mass audience. Even though Matt Dillon's sleazy private dick sports a John Waters mustache, nothing the Farrelly brothers have done reaches the anarchic highs (or lows) of Waters' work.
The key to There's Something About Mary is the presence of Jonathan Richman as a roving musical commentator. The wide-eyed Richman has made a career out of writing children's songs for adults, capturing innocence with an experienced eye. The Farrellys do the same thing, making R-rated movies for the 12-year-old in us all.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.