Screening Log #69: Dumb and Dumber (1994)

Written by Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, and Bennett Yellin
Directed by Peter Farrelly
Starring Jim Carey, Jeff Daniels, and Lauren Holly

 

 

 

The differences between low and high comedy are numerous and well delineated and discussed elsewhere, but it’s always been a curiosity of mine, the attitude taken toward one or the other by certain people with investment in either side. By-in-large, much of the critical dialogue is spent casting aspersions on low humour, speaking to its baseness and lowest-common-denominator stature in pejorative terms: bawdy, and body, humour is cheap and easy. In many cases this critique is fair; in many cases it can be lazy writing to pick the low hanging fruit of fart jokes and poop and vomit gags (pardon the pun). To dismiss the entirety of low comedy on this basis, however, dangerously discounts the secret weapon that underlies the success of low comedy: its universality. Sure, everyone enjoys a good and knowing chuckle at a clever joke or a witty rebuttal or a cuttingly keen satire, but the success of these comedic gestures is contingent on pre-existing and exclusionary knowledge. This contingency can be mitigated by being informed and discerning of a particular audience, but even couched as such, these forms of humour lack the direct and brutal grace that well-staged low humour can provide.

Dumb & Dumber, as it is, started off a decades long career in low comedy for Peter and Bobby Farrelly, which has gone on to include films such as, There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself, & Irene, and Shallow Hal. One would be hard-pressed to name anyone who’s made more from ignorance, stupidity, and unfortunately-timed bodily excretions than the Farrelly Brothers. The emergence of their particular brand of juvenile comedy happened to come along right in time with my generation’s adolescence and, as such, struck a pubescent chord in our collectively barely-haired souls. The Farrelly’s first spirit guides on offer are Lloyd Christmas, Jim Carrey, and Harry Dunne, Jeff Daninels, a pair of well-intentioned, if blissfully unaware, roommates who work for a minute or two as a limo driver and dog groomer/feeder/chauffeur in the film’s early goings. The jobs, however, matter as little to the pair as they do to the plot, functioning merely as the driving force (again, pardon the pun… feel free to stop pardoning them at any point now) to get the pair on the road.

After driving Mary Swanson, Lauren Holly, to the airport and retrieving a briefcase filled with ransom money she’d left behind for a pair of toughs, Lloyd promptly crashes his limo and flees the scene, emancipating himself from the burden of employment. Likewise, Harry’s good intentions inadvertently alleviate him from having a job when his plan of feeding fast food to dogs en route to a show goes predictably wrong. The pair are left with both infinite free time and motivation enough to embark on a road trip to return Mary’s abandoned bag. This motivation is compounded when they mistake the criminals after the briefcase for overly severe collection agents from the gas company whose bill was not paid. The trip from Rhode Island to Aspen, Colorado, is by no means easy, naturally complicated by the boys’ awkward interactions with others and between themselves, and full of encounters with large truckers, gas fires, and the attempts of the pursuing criminals to wrest the briefcase from their possession.

Once in Aspen, the film swaps its road movie hijinks for the tropes of economic and cultural fish-out-of-water fare. Harry and Lloyd discover that the briefcase is filled with money and proceed to use it to afford themselves a opulently comfortable stay in Aspen, replete with ridiculous ski-wear and sports cars. Here the worlds of high culture and low mix in a manner that demonstrates the schism between the corresponding modes of comedy and that the clash between the two results in a dialogue of simultaneous absurdist critique (on the side of the low) and broader education (on the side of the high). The reintroduction of Mary creates tension between Harry and Lloyd when Harry is set up on a day-date with her despite his knowledge of Lloyd’s amorous hopes. Lloyd’s base disposition is demonstrated again when his idea of revenge for Harry’s transgression of the mid-90’s version of “bros before hoes” veers toward the scatological, spiking a drink with laxative to evening-delayingly explosive result. The reasons for the briefcase are made clear and the friendship resolves itself in a manner that resists valorizing the ineptness of the principals and leaves them appropriately oblivious to their situation.

The crux of comedy’s success, especially in credibly mounting low comedy without pandering or seeming ignorant, rests in execution. It is in execution, specifically performance, that Dumb & Dumber seems to succeed despite itself. Both Carrey and Daniels are talented and likeable actors with a healthy dose of courage mixed into their comedic instincts. The relationship that the actors create between their characters has a naïve charm commensurate to the directness of the comedy the film puts forth and their performances go a long way in selling both the large moments and the smaller spaces in the film between punchlines and visual gags. Farrelly’s direction, for the most part, stays out of the way of the actors, giving them room to flesh out the script with facial ticks and gestures, while exhibiting spatial awareness and timing required to allow the film’s comedy to bloom in a somewhat organic manner.

The success of the film’s performances allows it to utilize the universal aspect of low comedy to function as a release valve for the audience. Harry and Lloyd allow the viewer to externalize and exorcise their own moments of unawareness and awkwardness. Through their emphasis on the absurdity and repugnance of universally basic human functions, enabled by the skillful incompetence of the principal performances, the Farrellys are able to craft a predictable film that generates the ridiculous and disgusting sort of catharsis that only the basest of comedy can. In a culture that often proselytizes eating one’s cultural “vegetables” for good health, perhaps it is important to keep the merits of revoltingly sweet desserts in sight.

(Note: I feel like I’d be remiss not to call to light the fact that, appropriately, this discussion of low comedy takes place in my 69th Screening Log entry… make of that what you will.)

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