Gross And Grosser

There is always a "could you believe?" moment in a Farrelly brothers movie. The shot that goes so far beyond any notion of good taste that you gasp before you laugh. Everyone knows what they were in "There's Something About Mary." The zipper. The hair gel. The dog. The most indelibly twisted sight in "Me, Myself & Irene" is not, as some would have it, the scene where an extra from "Chicken Run" is seen dangling from the nether regions of a bound and gagged cop. The concept is simply too outrageous to hit a personal nerve. No, my nominee would be the startling moment when Jim Carrey, as the long-suffering Rhode Island policeman Charlie, morphs into his raging alter ego, Hank, and in his rampage goes down on his knees in the street to feast his ravenous mouth on the enormous breast of a nursing mother. When he comes up for air, his triumphantly aggressive smile is haloed with milk. Discomfort, titillation, surprise and revulsion colliding into a comic bombshell that leaves you slightly woozy with laughter. At a moment like this, Peter and Bobby Farrelly earn their stripes as the four-star generals of gross-out comedy. In an era when gross reigns supreme, this is no mean feat.

"Mary" is a tough act to follow. For "Me, Myself & Irene" they've refurbished an old screenplay co-written with Mike Cerrone and cast the great elastic man of comedy to play their split-personality hero, a sweet-tempered soul who has eaten so much crow in his life that when he finally snaps he turns into a model of machismo run amok. The father of three brilliant, trash-talking African-American sons (his wife left him for a black midget Mensa member, played by Tony Cox), Charlie/Hank is diagnosed with "advanced delusionary schizophrenia with involuntary narcissistic rage." Nonetheless, he is ordered to shepherd the lovely Irene (Renee Zellweger)--who is being pursued by her gangster boyfriend--to her home. During this voyage he loses his meds, resulting in a situation in which both sides of his personality are fighting over the same woman.

Even for the creators of "Dumb and Dumber" and "Kingpin," this is a farfetched premise, and the movie pays a price for it. The saving grace of "Mary" was its grounding in recognizable human yearnings. "Me, Myself" is grounded in the yearning to get a guffaw at any cost. Sure, the combination of Carrey's zealous contortionism and the Farrellys' fearlessly low humor will make you laugh (see Jim wrestle a dying cow, see him locked in mortal combat with himself, see him pee all over the wall). But you feel the effort behind the gags. There's more chemistry between Carrey and Carrey than between him and his costar, and the woman-on-the-run-from-killers plot is strictly from hunger. There was a sweetness underlying "Mary" that put all the offending bodily fluids in a benign perspective. "Me, Myself & Irene" isn't nasty, but the aftertaste is hollow. The brothers are straining this time.

The Farrellys didn't invent gross-out humor, but such images as Jeff Daniels's diarrhetic explosion in "Dumb and Dumber" upped the ante and opened the floodgates. In teen comedies from "American Pie" to "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" to "Road Trip" no orifice goes uninvaded, no bodily substance goes untasted, no obscenity is left unsaid. Can we blame it on the '60s, as right-wing ideologues love to do? Can we blame it on the infantilizing of American culture? Can we blame Canada? For the moment, let's blame Mel Brooks. Some 26 years ago, in his hilarious "Blazing Saddles," he gathered a bunch of cowpokes around a campfire, filled them up with beans and let loose a sound that changed the face of comedy. Everyone had heard it before, but not up there on screen. To this day, there is no easier way to make an American audience laugh than with a fart joke. It is, simply, the cheapest but most cost-effective weapon in the comic arsenal.

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OK, maybe Jonathan Swift and Rabelais beat Mel to the punch, but neither of them had a three-picture deal at Fox. From the start, the movies were uniquely equipped to convey the shock of the gross in stomach-turning ways writers could only envy. You could describe in words a razor blade cutting an eyeball, but when Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali showed it in their 1928 surrealist "Un Chien Andalou," they knew they had found the best medium to epater les bourgeois. Little did they know that by the end of the century the great middle class of moviegoers, far from being outraged, would be lined up to see a man dive into the most unsanitary toilet in all of Scotland ("Trainspotting") or convulsed with laughter at the most ferocious display of projectile vomiting ever filmed--the exploding Mr. Creosote in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life."

The Bunuel-Dali philosophy of grossness--to use shock as a weapon against the status quo--hasn't died out, but it's always been more at home in Europe than in Hollywood. Art-house directors such as Marco Ferreri (men eating themselves to death in "La Grande Bouffe"), Japan's Nagisa Oshima (the erotically explicit "In the Realm of the Senses") and Pier Paolo Pasolini (whose "Salo" features boys forced by Fascists to eat feces) still had faith in the power of shock to shake up a complacent society. American filmmakers, whether subversive or crassly commercial, were more inclined to giggle. When John Waters had his diva Divine nibble on dog poop at the climax of "Pink Flamingos," it was meant as a gesture of liberation as well as offense: a black comic announcement that the cinema and the subculture were going to let it all hang out.

But grossness isn't what it used to be; with the exception of the surprisingly political "South Park," the stinky-poo outrages of recent Hollywood fare have no higher agenda than coaxing rowdy laughter from randy teenagers. Gross equals grosses; crass is mass market. In America, bad taste is democratic: it's for everyone to share and enjoy. We're all Jim Carrey, lapping up the culture's mother's milk, an idiot's grin on our faces.

Me, Myself & Irene20th Century Fox
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