There's Something About Mary is one of those films that's hard to objectively critique this far removed from its original release; it has so totally influenced every mainstream studio comedy that followed it that it can be difficult to view it clear-eyed. It's also a film that comedy fans may have burned themselves out on at the time; freshness, spontaneity, and surprise are a key element of all good comedies, so when you're viewing a film like this for the upteenth time, fully aware of what's coming next, the flaws become more apparent.
And there are flaws, make no mistake. Mary's directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, have never been noted for their brevity; the theatrical version of the picture runs just under two full hours, a pretty expansive length for a pop comedy. Most of the disposable material is in the first and second act (our hero Ted and his long-lost love Mary don't even reconnect until well past the one-hour mark), but the sheer length of the film causes us to get antsy in the home stretch, when it should be taking off. The third act is also overly cluttered, with too many characters making too many reveals (and too, too much Chris Elliot). And repeat viewings make it more and more clear that Mary, though well-played by Cameron Diaz, is too much of a construction; it's one thing to create a "perfect woman" who's hot and sweet and smart and rich, but must she also end a date by asking, "Hey you wanna go upstairs and watch SportsCenter?" In an obvious moment like that, it feels like the script is stacking the deck.
But these are all relatively minor irritations. My more analytical viewing, eleven years after Mary's theatrical release, confirmed that the Farrellys (along with co-screenwriters Ed Decter and John J. Strauss) truly did capture lightening in a bottle with the picture; it managed to perfectly combine the R-rated sex romp with the romantic comedy--the sticky and the sweet, if you will. It was a combination that created bang-up box office; Mary was a rare movie that opened respectably and then grew to monster numbers over time, one of the last honest-to-God "word of mouth" movies in recent memory. It had something for everyone--guys liked the dirty jokes and were hot for Cameron Diaz, girls identified with Diaz and dug the genuinely sweet relationship between her and Ben Stiller.
The film somehow got that balance exactly right, in a way that astonishingly few of its "gross-out" copycats (Tomcats, American Pie, Van Wilder) did; even the Farrellys struggled to recapture the Mary magic, striking out with films like Me, Myself, and Irene, Stuck on You, and their ill-fated Stiller re-teaming, The Heartbreak Kid. What happened this time? It's hard to say. Part of it is the intangible quality of good comedy--Mary is just plain funny, from the beautifully constructed zipper-in-the-bathroom scene (and its horrifying "money shot") to the cringe-worthy (but very funny) hijinks with poor Fluffy the Dog to Harland Williams, who comes in out of left field with a head-scratching, odd performance and damn near steals the picture.
But Mary's most famous scene is the notorious "hair gel" sequence; I'll assume that everyone knows the joke (and I couldn't easily replicate it on this family website anyway). That scene contains, I think, a lot of why Mary resonates and those other pictures don't. The Farrellys made some smart casting decisions--they went for actors who could be funny instead of traditional comedians. As a result, Diaz's Mary and Stiller's Ted are fully-formed characters (even underneath the goofy wigs and braces of the opening scenes); we identify with them, as we would in a more conventional rom-com. So when Mary notices Ted's "hair gel," we're embarrassed for him, but we're not laughing at him--or her, when we get that great cutaway of what said gel has done to her hair. In fact, we're laughing in spite of ourselves, because we like the characters so much, and we're silently hoping that the scene doesn't pay off in an awkwardly traditional way (i.e., with Mary calling Ted out and laughing at him). And when it doesn't, we're thankful; we're not just with Ted and Mary, but we're with the movie, for treating them right.
That identification is what Mary has over the films that followed it, the gross-out movies that knew the words but not the music. When Stiffler downs that DNA beer in American Pie, we don't react with much more than disgust--the circumstances that contaminated it are far-fetched, and we don't like the guy, so we don't have any investment in what happens to him, and so it's just a gross gag and nothing else. Nothing is just gross in There's Something About Mary (okay, maybe Magda topless in the window); as stupid as it sounds, the gags and the comic set pieces are in service of the story, and that is what makes all the difference.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Fox's new Blu-ray presentation offers the choice of the original theatrical version or the extended version, which runs an additional 11 minutes (clocking the entire film in at 130 minutes). I watched the extended cut, though I wish I'd gone with the superior theatrical version; while the longer cut includes some funny pieces of Jeffrey Tambor's heavily-cut role, it is mostly comprised of scenes that don't work (including an odd bit where Matt Dillon's Pat asks Mary, at the end of their first date, "Can I fell your bosoms before I go?" and she inexplicably agrees).
The Farrelly brothers have never offered much in the way of visual pyrotechnics; their preferred method of shooting comedy seems to be to look right down the barrel of a gag. Their films tend to have a clunky, TV-sitcom visual quality to them, and Mary is no exception. Consequently, the transfer (presented in 1080p and utilizing the MPEG-4 AVC codec) is perfectly acceptable though unexciting. The 1.85:1 image's color saturation is decent and black levels are solid, while detail is sometimes too good--the commentary mentions a scar over Stiller's eye in one scene (an injury from a scene shot the previous day) and the scar can still be clearly seen under his foundation makeup. But there's not much pop to the image--while free of any artifacts, it's rather flat and unexciting, and not much of an upgrade from the earlier, standard-def presentation.
The disc offers up an English 5.1 DTS-HD mix, but Mary is, unfortunately, not a terribly active film from an audio standpoint. As with most comedies, it's heavy on the dialogue, so it's pretty much a front-and-center job, with occasional music cues pepping up the track and some environmental sound (mostly during bar scenes) periodically creeping quietly into the rear channels. However, the dialogue is crisp and clear, with no audibility issues.
There are a wealth of language options: we're also offered French 5.1, Portuguese 5.1, Spanish 5.1, and Thai 2.0. Subtitles are available for English, Portuguese, Cantonese, French, Indonesian, Korean, Spanish, Mandarin, and Thai, along with a transcribed version of the Farrelly's audio commentary.
Well, you certainly can't accuse Fox of going light on the special features--though all were included in the 2003 collector's edition. We start with two Audio Commentaries. The first is by directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly, and anyone who has heard one of their irritating tracks knows what you're in for--the brothers basically spend the entirety of the film pointing out their friends who are extras. It grows tiresome within about ten minutes, and the bits of information between their shout-outs aren't worth the trouble. They also have additional commentary pieces that are accessible via a lovebirds icon that pops up during the commentary. Much more insightful is the second track, by co-writers Ed Decter and John J. Strauss. They share a great deal of information about the script's road to the screen and the many additions that the Farrellys made, both on the page and on the set.
"Getting Behind Mary" (43:44) is the first of the disc's many featurettes; this mixture of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage is a rough-edged (there's no narration or music transitions) but nicely candid look at the Farrelly's on-set methodology (we see them working through scenes with the actors, coming up with new dialogue, shooting and reworking). It's a bit overlong, but still an excellent addition. Next is an episode of AMC's "Backstory" (20:50) profiling the film; as is the norm with that serious, it's a little fluffy and occasionally hyperbolic, but well-assembled and interesting. An episode of Comedy Central's "Reel Comedy" (21:31) follows; hosted by Harland Williams, this promo special from the run-up to the film's release is fairly funny (mostly thanks to Williams' goofy presence) and not completely redundant.
"Up A Tree With Jonathan Richman and Tommy Larkins" (11:37) is a series of testimonials about Larkins and (especially) Richman, the musicians who pop up through the film, Cat Ballou-style, followed by a goofy interview with the duo. Next is "Franks and Beans: A Conversation with W. Earl Brown" (5:32), a quickie interview with the actor who plays "Warren"; out of costume and with his natural hair, he looks strangely like Steve Earle. The film's stars are interviewed in "Exposing Themselves" (14:26); it's kind of an extension of the "Getting Behind Mary" featurette, and utilizes the same interview sessions. "Touchdown: A Conversation with Brett Favre" (5:37) features the football star's brief reflections on making the movie (interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage from his shooting day), as well as his funny story about taking his wife and daughter to the movie, unaware of its adult subject matter. "Interview Roulette with Harland Williams" (6:51) is a mildly funny compilation of non-sequiturs from the comic, while "Puffy, Boobs, and Balls" (10:51) features actress Lynn Shaye and make-up designer Tony Gardner discussing the creation of her fake prosthetic breasts and other make-up and special effects.
The "Around the World With Mary" feature (5:44) allows viewers to select from an even wider choice of languages to watch the final scene in several different tongues (Japanese was my favorite). "Marketing Mary" presents a vast array of international posters, TV spots, and the original theatrical trailer; it's followed by the Music Video (4:13) for the Dandy Warhols' soundtrack song "Every Day Should Be A Holiday." Next up are a funny batch of Outtakes (3:27) and cutting-up behind the scenes, followed by a Karaoke version (3:03) of the "Build Me Up Buttercup" closing credits number. The final special feature is "Behind The Zipper" (4:35) a goofily disposable look at the film's most famous sequences, hosted by Shaye in character as Magda.
The first time I saw There's Something About Mary, it was with a radio-assembled pre-release preview audience, and their laughter took the roof of the joint; we knew next to nothing about the picture, so its every wild bit and manic turn took us by uproarious surprise. Obviously, you can only see a film like this with that kind of fresh eye once, but Mary still holds up; its comic bits still play, its romance is as effectively rendered as ever. If you've somehow managed to elude the film for the last eleven years, then by all means, pick it up. But fans who own that 2003 collector's edition can probably keep hold of it; with no new extras and little noticeable improvement in picture or sound, that version of this talky comedy should continue to serve you just fine.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.