Dumb and Dumber

(Peter Farrelly, US, 1994)


Movies celebrating rank stupidity do not usually go down well with critics – look at the general reception amongst learned cinephiles to Forrest Gump (1994). Even for these exacting viewers, however, Dumb and Dumber has its definite compensations. Not the least of these compensations is Jim Carrey.

The film is essentially a vehicle for Carrey, who began his career on the television show In Living Color, and worked on up through Ace Ventura – Pet Detective (Tom Shadyac, 1994) and The Mask (Charles Russell, 1994). Dumb and Dumber is well-conceived for Carrey, mainly because it is low on conventional movie sentiment and big on broad, tasteless, idiotic antics. There are many moments where Carrey plays a nerdy idiot with all the vigour and panache once displayed by the great Jerry Lewis – a high compliment indeed.

It is a rough and ready assemblage of stereotypical characters, sight gags, routines, bits of slapstick business. The plot is just a bit of functional filler necessary to strings these bits together – a typical formula in popular movie genres like porn, action films or musicals.

Carrey and Jeff Daniels play Lloyd and Harry, two remarkably stupid losers who are also, of course, best friends. The start shows us Harry and Lloyd separately, doing their daily jobs. (Surrealist speculation: are they two parts of the one secret personality: Harold Lloyd??) Employment catastrophe awaits them both. Harry delivers dogs; he drives an absurd van that has been dressed up to look like a giant mutt. He has a task to take off some delicate pooches to a dog show, but he makes an ugly mess of it.

Meanwhile, Lloyd is a chauffer who falls instantly in love with his passenger of the day, society gal Mary (Lauren Holly). She goes to the airport to drop off a suitcase full of ransom money for a vicious bunch of kidnappers. When Lloyd sees her leave the case on the floor, he grabs it before the kidnappers do and starts pursuing her to give it back.

This action will take most of the film. It quickly becomes a road movie, with our two heroes making their way to Aspen. Unbeknownst to them, they are pursued by a gaggle of kidnappers and cops, everyone after that black suitcase. It’s a typical structure for a screwball comedy, somewhat reminiscent of Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972).

The film lets these two dummies sing, fall over, dress badly and drop verbal clangers as often as possible. Dumb and Dumber is at its best when it fully embraces an adolescent sensibility, launching off into ridiculous fantasy sequences and pastiches of other movies including Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990).

The gags are elementary – one misses the elaborately staged spectacle that a director such as Blake Edwards could have contributed to this mayhem – but nonetheless infectious. A particular source of humour is the inappropriate manners of Lloyd each time he gets with Mary. Lloyd is a kind of psychotic romantic, like Harvey Keitel’s Jimmy in Fingers (James Toback, 1978), or Jerry Lewis at his most extreme – preening, posturing, slobbering, projecting like crazy onto the object of his desire. Harry has a different personal style; he is the wild, unruly type, and his roughhouse antics make no allowance for feminine delicacy.

The humour of the film is consistently centred on base bodily functions – snot, farting, pissing and gross eating habits figure prominently. Some of the most spectacular excesses happen just off-screen, to hilarious effect, as when Harry’s foot catches fire at a gas station and, for a while, we simply see the reflection of its warm orange glow below frame. Director Peter Farrelly occasionally goes to the edge with a set-piece involving sudden violence or death – but even these jokes are liberatingly tasteless.

Dumb and Dumber has that slightly plastic, televisual look shared by many ’90s American comedies, such as the Problem Child series. But it also has a vague aura of hipness. It is a production of New Line films, the company that has given us art-house films from Robert Altman as well as adventurous horror movies like the Nightmare on Elm St series. New Line aims a part of its product at the knowing teenager – ironic, smart, drenched in movies, television and pop culture, up on slightly off-centre music trends.

The soundtrack here is correspondingly queer. Old-fashioned burlesque routines are accompanied by the morose strains of Nick Cave or Crash Test Dummies, and the score is provided by Todd Rundgren, who does variations on his intense pop anthem of love gone wrong, “Can We Still Be Friends?”.

I guess that song kinda fits the buddy-buddy antics of Lloyd and Harry.

© Adrian Martin March 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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