With When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.
In retrospect, There’s Something About Mary was probably inevitable. The 1990s were dominated by a resurgence of glossy romantic comedies and a rise in socio-political sensitivity otherwise known as “P.C. culture.” The world was primed for something that could puncture all that earnestness and compassion. And that “something” came in the form of jizz jokes and dog violence from the directors of Dumb And Dumber. Peter and Bobby Farrelly set out to call back to the proudly puerile frat humor of Animal House, only to inadvertently invent a whole new style of romantic comedy instead. Audiences had never seen anything like There’s Something About Mary, and they couldn’t get enough. The raunchy, gross-out rom-com was born, and it was decidedly here to stay.
There’s Something About Mary wasn’t just a colossal critical and commercial hit in the summer of 1998. It was a full-on cultural sensation. The shot of Cameron Diaz with stuck-up spunk hair became one of the defining images of ’90s comedy, and There’s Something About Mary still ranks as one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time. Without There’s Something About Mary, the entire comedic landscape of the aughts might’ve been very different. Along with American Pie the next year, it kicked off a new comedic era that included films like Wedding Crashers, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Superbad. Who knows how Judd Apatow’s zeitgeist-defining career would’ve panned out if There’s Something About Mary hadn’t paved a path for rom-coms that wore their R-rating not as a matter of fact (like When Harry Met Sally or Pretty Woman) but as an edgy badge of honor.
I have to admit, the raunchy rom-com genre has never been a particular favorite of mine, which is one of the reasons I’ve largely avoided covering them in this column. If defending the artistic merits of the rom-com genre is an uphill battle in and of itself, deriding puerile comedy is maybe an even bigger one, especially when you’re a woman. It’s hard to say you dislike bawdy humor without coming across as an overly sensitive prude—without it sounding like the reason you dislike the movie is because you’re offended by it.
Yet while there’s plenty about There’s Something About Mary that’s worthy of critique—particularly in its strange half-humanizing, half-mocking depiction of mental and physical disability—my biggest problem is that it just doesn’t make me laugh. I prefer humor that’s mined from the specificity of characters, which is one of the reasons I’m drawn to romantic comedies in the first place. Unlike the similarly immature but more character-focused Long Shot, There’s Something About Mary’s go-for-broke jokes too often feel broad and lazy.
I can’t begrudge the fact that There’s Something About Mary clearly did make a lot of people laugh. The movie certainly has a gonzo balls-to-the-wall commitment to its own absurdity, and Cameron Diaz gives one of the best comedic performances of the ’90s as cheerfully guileless dream girl Mary Jensen, who becomes the life-long object of affection for hapless Ted Stroehmann (Ben Stiller) after their high school almost-romance ends in penile disaster. There’s Something About Mary takes such a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to its humor that there are at least a few jokes I do find genuinely funny, particularly a weird tangent about a serial killer confession mix-up.
But—and perhaps this is unfair of me—I do kind of begrudge the way that There’s Something About Mary took a genre that had traditionally been a haven for nuanced women’s stories and turned it into a space for crass humor. When so much of cinema is ruled by a masculine sensibility already, it’s almost unfair that spirit took over rom-coms for a while too. Like the mom in SNL’s “Wells For Boys” sketch who has to defend her son’s love of sensitively emotive toys, I feel the urge to yell, “Everything is for you. And this one thing is for him!” Especially because it took Hollywood over a decade of inelegant attempts before Bridesmaids finally figured out how to let women in on the bawdy fun too.
To be fair, There’s Something About Mary does a better job than, say, Knocked Up of letting its leading lady at least participate in the comedy, rather than just watch it from the sidelines. Building on her scene-stealing work in The Mask and My Best Friend’s Wedding, Diaz emerged as the film’s breakout star. She’s the perfect avatar for There’s Something About Mary’s satirical riff on the “dream girl next door.” Mary is a hot, compassionate doctor whose idea of a perfect date is eating hot dogs and drinking beer at a baseball game. And the movie leans into the idea that in order to fall for a hapless guy like Ted, Mary would have to be a little, well, peculiar. She cites Harold And Maude as her favorite romance, and gushes about how much she likes shy, clumsy guys with braces. Mary’s weird taste in men is the most character-specific thing about the movie—and at least justifies There’s Something About Mary’s odd couple pairing more than most rom-coms of its ilk do.
The whole dark joke of There’s Something About Mary is that if such an impossibly perfect woman actually existed, she’d find her life filled with men who are constantly stalking her. The Farrelly brothers are to some degree satirizing how often Hollywood romanticizes obsessive behavior in the name of true love. Though we’re supposed to be rooting for Ted, the film points out that his behavior isn’t ultimately all that different from the creeps who’ve dedicated their lives to weaseling their way into Mary’s world. “Τhis is like group therapy or something,” one stalker bemoans during the climax where they all wind up at Mary’s house.
Yet because the movie is operating on such a broad wavelength, there are no real characters to hang that story on and no oomph to its have-it-both ways ending. There’s Something About Mary is essentially just two hours of vignettes, with a lot of screentime dedicated to Matt Dillon, Chris Elliott, and Lee Evans, and their various ridiculous, grotesque schemes to win over Mary. So the movie’s success hinges on how funny you happen to find those vignettes. And while some of them are comedically coherent—like a brutal zipper malfunction sequence that puts a cringe-comedy spin on the Marx Brothers’ famous stateroom scene from A Night At The Opera—others are downright uncomfortable. (There’s a gag where a man who uses crutches for his spine damage struggles to pick up his keys. That he’s later revealed to be faking his injury doesn’t change what we’re supposed to be laughing at.)
Even and maybe especially in a dumb comedy, it takes a real level of savvy to pull off a “no topic is off limits” approach to humor. And the Farrelly brothers just don’t have that dexterity. While Mary’s intellectually disabled brother Warren (W. Earl Brown, who doesn’t share his character’s disability) is sometimes presented as someone we’re supposed to laugh with, rather than at, there are plenty of times where he’s the butt of the joke too. The Farrelly brothers’ desire to depict disability as a normal part of life is admirable, and they did get better at casting actors with disabilities to play disabled characters as their careers went on. (In 2020, The Ruderman Foundation honored the Farrellys “in recognition of their advocacy for the inclusive and authentic representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry.”) But the line is tricky. Did Warren actually humanize mental disability for There’s Something About Mary’s teen boy audience? Or did he just become fuel for mocking impressions? (2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon is a much better example of a movie where comedy and mental disability live side-by-side in a way that feels fully three-dimensional.)
Elements like Mary’s warm relationship with Warren inspired a lot of critics to praise There’s Something About Mary’s surprising sense of sweetness. But, again, it feels a little unfair that There’s Something About Mary got commended for the very thing that earnest women-led romantic comedies are so often derided for. There’s Something About Mary is obviously doing something unique in its mix of ribaldry and reverie. But when it comes to a romance that blends a lowbrow comedic sensibility with genuine heart, I much prefer The Wedding Singer, which hit theaters the same year and does a much better job of grounding its adolescent sense of humor in wonderfully endearing characters.
Though gross-out comedies are no longer a dominating force the way they were in the aughts, the cyclical nature of culture means we’re sort of headed back to where we were in the late ’90s. We’re in the midst of another rom-com renaissance, while concerns about political correctness have been repackaged into fears over “the woke police” and “cancel culture.” Perhaps that means another There’s Something About Mary is again inevitable. If that’s the case, I hope it delivers something a bit meatier than just franks and beans.
Next time: Bennifer is back, so let’s revisit Gigli.