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The Movies of 1994: The Near-Perfect ‘Dumb and Dumber’

The beauty — and even, to some extent, the daring — of ‘Dumb and Dumber’ is that Harry is only slightly less IQ-challenged than Lloyd, and spends a lot less time getting exasperated with him than sharing his wavelength and endorsing his dreams.

All of these years later, nobody has made a movie about Monica Lewinsky’s affair with Bill Clinton, and I wish someone would hop to it. Sarah Silverman isn’t getting any younger, people. But you can’t beat my pick for the right guys to handle the job: Bobby and Peter Farrelly — at least if we could somehow time-zap ’em back to their prime. Closet innocence fans disguised as merchants of crass, they were so in sync with the Clinton era’s Krispy Kreme gestalt that the nation’s first (spiritually) 12-year-old president — if the Secret Service code name for the White House in Bill’s instant-gratification heyday wasn’t “The Cookie Jar,” it shoulda been — sometimes seems like a ghost character haunting their ’90s movies. Heck, so does Monica.

Getting the sequel treatment with Dumb and Dumber To this week, Dumb and Dumber came first, followed by Kingpin (which the Farrellys didn’t write) and then Theres Something About Mary  their biggest hit, thanks mostly to Cameron Diaz’s hair-gel misadventures with Ben Stiller’s homemade Krispy Kreme icing.

Released the same year that a certain stain on someone’s blue dress was getting the House GOP in an uproar, it must have been the first time someone’s jism was employed as a sight gag in a mainstream comedy, forever cementing — well, so to speak — the Farrellys’ rude-boy rep. But the movie’s use of rock’s ultimate Mr. Innocent, Jonathan Richman, as its singing narrator amounted to an admirably sneaky way of foregrounding old-fashioned schmaltz while making someone else responsible for voicing it. That way, it didn’t intrude on the jokes.

As if demonstrating how fragile a gestalt can be, things started to go south with 2000’s Me, Myself & Irene, a movie that nobody on either side of the camera seemed to have much heart for. (D&D star Jim Carrey probably didn’t think he’d end up needing to go back to the Farrellys for a cred transfusion any more than they thought they’d need to go back to him for box office insurance, and neither camp got what it wanted.) Though the brothers recouped to some extent with Shallow Hal, an apologia for their own perceived callousness that might’ve turned painfully saccharine if not for Jack Black’s mad-eyed zest in the title role, the old mojo has never returned in their later movies. Maybe they’re waiting for Hillary.

In the meantime, I wish Dumb and Dumber To all the best, really I do. If nothing else, I’ll bet sight unseen that it’s less rotten than 2003’s Dumb and Dumberer, which nobody from the original was involved in. But the odds are that the 2014 reprise wouldn’t exist if the brothers, not to mention Carrey, couldn’t really use a hit 20 mostly not-so-great years down the road. And I hope they don’t mess up my memories of a movie that I think is close to perfect.

This side of, oh, Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot,1 “perfect” is a word that doesn’t get applied to post-1930s screen comedies, even beloved ones, too often. Let alone one that has Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas fantasizing about charming the daylights out of a roomful of rich sophisticates, his inamorata included, by lighting his own farts. But there isn’t a scene, including that one, or a performance that doesn’t deliver exactly what the Farrellys want it to. You aren’t sitting through weak ideas or misfired digressions to get to the good parts, the way we’re all used to.


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It helps when the director’s name cows people.

Considering that (a) the Farrellys had never directed before, and (b) Dumb and Dumber’s tone is a lot trickier to sustain than it looks, the absence of vacillation and visibly panicky second thoughts about the whole premise is impressive. Yet what may be more remarkable is how the movie stays patently good-hearted without ever resorting to sentiment.

The goal is to get audiences feeling huge tenderness for people we’re primed to think are ridiculous, and we do. But that doesn’t mean they’ve grown any less ridiculous, because — well, at least back then — the brothers weren’t big on redeeming anyone. Instead, the movie sets out to beguile us into cherishing them just as they are, the same way that John Waters used to with his more flagrant casts of freaks and oddballs.

My guess is most of you won’t need a plot refresher, but here it goes anyway. Lloyd and his best — that is, only — pal Harry (Jeff Daniels) start out sharing a forlorn pad in Providence, Rhode Island, working no-brainer jobs they keep getting fired from on the grounds of idiocy. Then Lloyd ends up in possession of a briefcase belonging to a rich Aspen gal named Mary (Lauren Holly), little knowing that he’s just botched the ransom payoff intended for her husband’s kidnappers.

Having instantly decided that he’s moony about her, Lloyd talks Harry into driving to Colorado to return the briefcase, since his pard is the one with wheels — a van irresistibly outfitted to look like a literal shaggy dog, thanks to Harry’s yen to open a pet-grooming store. Naturally, the kidnappers’ hired guns — Mike Starr as Joe “Mental” Mentalino and Karen Duffy as his slinky accomplice, J.P. Shay — are in hot pursuit after panicking our boys, who think they’re being dunned for an unpaid utilities bill, and decapitating Harry’s pet parakeet on a visit to the pair’s, ahem, lodgings.

The parakeet’s posthumous fate — Lloyd sells it to a trusting blind boy after Scotch-taping its wee head back on — is the sickest joke in the movie. But if Dumb and Dumber celebrates anything, which it does, it’s the slogan promoted by the hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick: “Lonesome no more!” Given how abject Lloyd and Harry are, isn’t it great that they’re a team? There’s hope for misfits everywhere in that.

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Sad sacks who prevail have been a screen staple since the silent era. But comedy duos usually depend on contrast to get laughs: goofball Jerry Lewis vs. urbane Dean Martin, dreamy Laurel vs. practical-minded Hardy, and so on. The Marx Brothers and the Farrellys’ beloved Three Stooges play off the same friction in triplicate. That’s why the beauty — and even, to some extent, the daring — of Dumb and Dumber is that Harry is only slightly less IQ-challenged than Lloyd, and spends a lot less time getting exasperated with him than sharing his wavelength and endorsing his dreams. Whatever becomes of these two, they’ll never be able to complain that nobody understands them. That’s the magnificent side of their duncey bond.

If you’re in any doubt of how astute the Farrellys are about which relationship is the key one, recall the tellingly hands-off way that Lloyd’s intended one and only is presented. Mary may be his love object, but she’s not ours, despite her money and good looks — two assets the movie doesn’t have a great deal of use for. (Neither one depends on personality, and that settles that.) It’s no disappointment that Lloyd doesn’t wind up with her; in fact, Dumb and Dumber would have an unhappy ending if he did. What we want is what we get: him and Harry on the road again, blithely bungling the opportunity of their dimwit lifetimes in one of the sweetest codas in movies. 

 

Aside from Theres Something About Mary, which plays a lot more by the rom-com rules — hair-gel jokes and all — most women I know are allergic to the Farrellys, which is no big surprise. Yet compared to the rancid gynophobia animating so many guy-oriented yuk-fests — or, hell, the culture at large — the brothers are sweetie pies.

Not that anyone’s going to hire them to direct a Susan B. Anthony biopic anytime soon. In a way that’s not only retro but consciously lunkheaded, they — just like their heroes — aren’t unfond of women so much as bamboozled by their existence. Ever since Betty Friedan, every woman has known that mystification is dehumanization’s pilot fish; not all of the reasons that frat boys love these movies are good ones, of course. And yet what keeps the Farrellys’ version relatively innocuous is that it’s never hostile. D&D’s Mary may not be swooned over by the filmmakers, but she is kind to Lloyd at crunch time. The movie doesn’t expose her as a selfish bitch to turn us against her, which would be the go-to stratagem if authentic yobs were in charge.

The Farrellys aren’t often accused of being subtle. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting how the values of what we weren’t yet calling the 1 Percent are satirized almost exclusively via Lloyd and Harry’s attempts to emulate them once our heroes discover — by mishap, needless to say — that the briefcase they’ve lugged across the country is stuffed with cash. The parody of Pretty Woman’s shopping spree ridicules the audience’s internalization of those values as well. Even Luis Buñuel might have cackled at the sight of Lloyd and Harry swanking it up in their eyesore finery.

Not accidentally, the switch also gives Carrey and Daniels oodles of fresh comedy business to play with right when they’re close to exhausting the fun of the Lloyd-Harry partnership. Or Carrey is, anyhow, because he hasn’t grasped — and really, never would — that a feature-length movie is something other than an extended skit. His costar is another story, and one of the treats of revisiting Dumb and Dumber is that the guy who gets my vote for best living American actor is in it.

Coming off Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, Carrey was movieland’s hottest marquee name at the time, so he naturally got most of the attention. But man, is Jeff Daniels a marvel. First off, he’s got to make the duo’s best-buds intimacy convincing pretty much on his own, because Carrey — with his stand-up-comic solipsism — never had any gift for playing off his castmates, let alone standing back to let them shine. It’s the real reason he never developed as an actor; after he’d been at it a decade, it never occurred to Carrey to react to Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, even though she was tossing him vibrant stuff to die for. No wonder his big bids for Oscar consideration — The Truman Show, Man on the Moon were solo turns.

While Carrey’s shtick as Lloyd is often inspired — he works that chipped tooth and bowl haircut the way Peyton Manning manages a football — shtick is still what it is. You’re never unconscious that he’s doing a routine, which doesn’t hurt the movie particularly. By contrast, Daniels doesn’t have stardom’s pressure to contend with. Doughy-faced and kudzu-haired (it’s wonderful how the Mutt Cutts van and he resemble each other), he damn near convinces you that he’s been Harry all of his life.

It’s as incredible to remember that Daniels was fresh off playing noble Joshua Chamberlain in Gettysburg the year before as it is to realize he’d go on to incarnating, say, the smart-and-smarter parental dilemmas of The Squid and the Whale. But you’d have to be awfully pretentious to think that being the heart and soul of Dumb and Dumber is a lesser achievement. He’s got moments — Harry helplessly cracking up as he asks Lloyd to kiss him, for instance — that are as lovely as any comic acting on film, and the movie could replace Carrey more easily (the young Adam Sandler might have done fine) than it could do without Daniels.

Funnily enough, Daniels is also the only member of Dumb and Dumber’s talent pool whose career has stayed in the ascendant. (Let’s forgive him The Newsroom; being a ventriloquist’s dummy for Aaron Sorkin would put a damper on just about anybody’s lust for life.) Carrey lost me well before his box office slide in the aughts, and he hasn’t looked like being Jim Carrey strikes even him as much fun ever since Me, Myself & Irene added flop sweat to his manic mode. Much as I love the Farrellys, the last movie of theirs I paid any heed to was 2003’s Stuck on You, which tried to resurrect their only real passion — telling the world what it’s like to be brothers — by casting Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as Siamese twins. But then, as Orson Welles coulda told them, it’s not easy to regroup for the long game when your first movie said it all.

Tom Carson (@TomCarsonWriter) is GQ’s movie reviewer and the author of Gilligan’s Wake and Daisy Buchanan’s Daughter.