In The Finally Screenings, Alden Ford is watching comedy classics that, because he grew up in a cave in Alaska, he’s never seen before. These are his takes on movies everyone else has seen before.
After a few weeks of reviewing films which are for one reason or another considered seminal or groundbreaking, I thought it would be nice to take a break of sorts and just watch a comedy I’ve never seen. So this week I watched Dumb and Dumber. It was the feature writing and directing debut for the Farrelly Brothers, which is of note, but more than anything it’s simply a movie I finally got around to seeing. But as I watched it, I realized that it’s also a movie that was incessantly quoted, ad nauseum, all around me, for years in middle and high school, which was probably one of the reasons I never saw it. In fact, in some ways, Dumb and Dumber has more to overcome than any film I’ve reviewed so far: does it withstand having been butchered every day for years by millions of shrieking pubescents?
See, for someone my age, Dumb and Dumber is bested in infuriating quotability by only a select few comedies: Austin Powers, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Tommy Boy and Billy Madison (and, for those of us in the theater crowd in high school, add The Princess Bride and Monty Python and the Holy Grail to that list). Every kid I knew had his own crappy Jim Carrey impression. No call of “Mock!” was unmet with a “Yeah!” I’ve heard “the most annoying sound in the world” countless times, from people much more annoying (and physically near me) than Lloyd. It’s a movie which, although I’d never seen it, was probably 90% familiar to me simply by being referenced and quoted over and over by my shrill, pimply buddies.
So watching Dumb and Dumber was like a trip back to 7th grade, which, if your childhood was anything like mine, promised to be more pain than pleasure.
I like to divide the last three decades into three categories for comedies. The 80s were the years of the “concept comedy” - a movie whose premise is the main focus: A kid gets sent back to 1955 and meets his parents. Three screw-ups start a ghost-capturing business. A kid wakes up in the body of an adult. You went to those movies because the setup was the hook. The concept gave way to the comedian in the 90s, with movies that were much less about the plots than the individual comedians who starred in them - Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Mike Meyers. You saw a comedy in the 90s because of who was in it, and you had a pretty good idea of what to expect. I think of the 2000s as being the decade of the writer’s/director’s comedy - movies you see because the writers/directors are established and consistent: Judd Apatow, Pegg/Wright, Wes Anderson.
By that crude measure, Dumb and Dumber is a quintessential 90s comedy. The Farrelly Brothers are a known quantity now, but in 1994, this was a Jim Carrey movie. It still is. Which is both good and bad. Wayne’s World, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, shows Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey at the peak of their comedy careers, but before going over the edge into muggy ridiculousness. But Jim Carrey’s early career was defined by muggy ridiculousness, and here he’s both in top form and completely batshit crazy, because in his career they were the same thing.
But it works for Carrey, for the most part - better than it does for Jeff Daniels, who’s at his best when he plays to his deadpan strengths. Both have their shining moments, but they - and the Farrelly Brothers - work best when they make Harry and Lloyd two separate but equally moronic characters, whose unique idiocies complement each other.
So, does it hold up? Yeah, mostly. I see the funny, hiding beneath the dogeared and overquoted gags, but without a firsthand childhood memory to fall back on, there’s no kreme filling in what I can tell was once a delicious comedy Twinkie. Instead, it’s the genuine article rendered disappointing by overexposure to its imitators - like being unimpressed by the real Sphinx because you’ve seen the fake one in Vegas. It’s shameful, to be sure. But I can’t help it.
What does still work, and well, is the stuff that my average 13-year-old chum either didn’t appreciate or couldn’t copy - mostly in the form of some pretty fantastic physical comedy. The pepper scene, for instance, made me laugh a lot - because it’s not a joke that can be easily repeated - it’s just an extended shot of Daniels and Carrey going crazy. Carrey’s sneeze right at the end of that long take makes me laugh just thinking about it. Why would they think that ketchup and mustard would help at all? Gold. Carrey’s manic tap dance in the suit store is awesome, too. And I don’t think I ever knew that Lloyd’s last name is Christmas. That’s super funny, and thankfully a tiny secret unspoiled by endless repetition of the blind-kid-with-dead-parakeet joke.
There are some clunky bits, even factoring in overquoting - the Turbo-Lax and Sea Bass manly-love scenes, as well as the feeble attempts at actual pathos, are the early prototypes of the kind of material that we all know kind of sucks about Farrelly Brothers movies. But these moments really are overshadowed by what Dumb and Dumber does better than almost anyone else: it’s super dumb. Sublimely dumb. The way that Harry and Lloyd snatch victory, unwittingly, from the jaws of defeat, just so they can snatch defeat back, is really fantastic. I think it’s a sharper game than anything else the Farrelly Brothers have written, and I think it’s one of the better venues for Carrey’s super-specific brand of insanity.
I do wish I could see this movie with no baggage attached to it, because I’m sure it would crack me up even more. As it is, though, the bits that were still unspoiled, as well as the stuff that somehow weathered all the regurgitation (“Harry! Your hands are freezing!” is unbelievably resilient) made it pretty great anyway. I’m glad to finally check it off the list and replace the screaming 8th-grade voices in my head with the source material.
One bad middle school memory down, sixteen thousand to go.
Alden Ford is an actor, writer and comedian living in Brooklyn. He performs regularly in NYC with his sketch/improv group Sidecar.