DUMB & DUMBER (1994)
Peter Farrelly, Bennett Yellin and Bobby Farrelly
Why It’s Here
I saw Dumb & Dumber on opening night, back around Christmas of 1994, with my brother, sister and then sister-in-law. I vividly recall that after the film, we walked to my brother’s car, and we were unable to leave the parking lot for about ten minutes because all four of us were still laughing so hard at what we had just seen. Several times, the laughter would start to die down, but then one of us would say, through building giggles, “Hey, what about the part where…”, and as we filled the others in on the favorite nugget of comedy in question, we all collapsed in laughter again. We certainly would have all been killed if any of us had attempted to drive in that mirthfully convulsed condition. And that story will tell you as well as anything why Dumb & Dumber is on my list of my favorite screenplays. Is it a new benchmark in cinematic innovation? Nope. Does it spin a complex, compelling, never-before-told story? Don’t be ridiculous. But it’s one of the few films I have ever seen that made me laugh so hard I was literally in pain. It is still, for my money and fifteen years later, the funniest film I have ever paid to see in a theater.
The titular heroes of the film are Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), the two biggest nimrods in
Plotwise, that’s more or less it. Like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Dumb & Dumber is a road picture, and the format tends to work well for this kind of comedy, as its rambling nature naturally lends itself to the sort of episodic storytelling that serves this style of humor best. Screenwriters Bennett Yellin and the Farrelly Brothers, Peter and Bobby (Peter also, according to the titles, “durected” the film…even the credits of this movie are funny!), know that to get the maximum comic mileage out of Lloyd and Harry’s adventure, it’s not necessary to lard the picture with excessive plot complications and slamming-door-farce type of humor. In short, the plot is not what generates the laughs here; it’s Harry and Lloyd. These two are, to put it mildly, exceptional individuals. Like Forrest Gump was exceptional. Short-bus riders, I mean. And it’s enough to drop them into new settings with varied characters and to watch how their density explodes the circumstances into humor.
Through the course of their cross-country trek, we see Lloyd and Harry in a variety of venues. They stop at a country diner, where they alienate the waitress by calling her “Flo” (“You know,” a tittering Lloyd reminds her, “like…like the TV show…”) and get into a row with a bunch of hillbilly boys led by the hulking Sea Bass (former hockey pro Cam Neely), who later reveals himself to be, in classic hillbilly fashion, a fan of “manly love”. They get pulled over by a state trooper (Harland Williams) who spotted the open beer bottles in their van and who takes an investigative swig…only to find the bottles are filled with the dismayingly incontinent Lloyd’s still-warm urine. They crash a stuffy nature preservation society party in
You can see from the above paragraph how easy it becomes, when reviewing a film like Dumb & Dumber, to just fall into writing a laundry list of your favorite jokes. But to be fair, a film like this really rises or falls on the strength of its jokes, and Dumb & Dumber has some of the funniest I’ve ever seen in a film. Students of comedy will tell you that creating smart dumb dialogue and characters is one of the great challenges of humor, and Yellin and the Farrellys have written some of the most brilliant stupidity of all time here. Some of Lloyd and Harry’s idiocy comes on a pretty basic level, their dialogue peppered with malapropisms like Lloyd’s mention of “tea and strumpets” or Harry’s recollection of a “John Deere letter” an ex sent to him. Then there are comic misunderstandings, like Lloyd, who has forgotten Mary’s last name (he only recalls that it starts with an “S”), checking the monogram on the briefcase and declaring, “Here is is…Samsonite! I was way off!” There’s jokes that play rather obviously on the boys’ out-of-it status, as when Lloyd spots a framed newspaper front page, about the moon landing, on the wall of a bar and declares in awe, “No way…” Then there’s Lloyd and Harry’s general ignorance about the realities of everyday life. Lamenting their recently fired status, Harry declares that he can’t believe there are no jobs to be had in town. Lloyd replies, with a scoff of disbelief and disgust, “Yeah…unless you want to work forty hours a week!” They don’t seem to get that a heart-shaped hotel love tub is really not meant for two buddies to drink beer in together, and someone should have told Harry that tongues stick to frost, as he spends an entire afternoon frozen to an
But see, I’m doing it again! You don’t want me to tell you every joke in the movie, because then why would you want to watch it? Of course, it’s a much different experience to see these gags performed by Carrey and Daniels, who with this, their only film together, have made several major film magazines’ countdowns of the greatest comedy teams in film history. Indeed, the temptation is to credit the film’s success entirely to their work together, to discount the contributions of the writers, and in fairness, there are quite a few moments, like Lloyd’s encounter with the Big Gulp kids, that score their laughs primarily through the playing of Carrey and Daniels. But as I discussed in my earlier review of Happy Gilmore, my feeling is that comedies like this, if jokes were all they had going for them, would probably not endure, and it’s the extra undergirding of theme and character that helps Dumb & Dumber to rise above its genre and achieve true greatness.
Dumb & Dumber, strange as it may seem, has an oddly engaging love story as its driving force. Sure, Lloyd is a dimwit for thinking that one drive to an airport (with a married woman, no less) constitutes a potential basis for a romantic relationship, but his feelings are obviously strong enough to carry him all the way across the country to see this woman again. When he finally reconnects with her, he is surprisingly, touchingly earnest as he fumbles his way through a rehearsal of what he wants to tell her: “I feel like a schoolboy…a schoolboy who desperately wants to make sweet, sweet love to you.” Sadly, but true to form, he later botches this endearing declaration by blurting out to her that “I desperately want to make love to a schoolboy!” Still, our heart really breaks for him when she tells him their chances of getting together are one in a million (fortunately for his feelings, he’s oblivious: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance!”), and we don’t begrudge him his fantasy, when he sees Mary reuniting with her husband, of whipping out a gun and riddling the guy with lead. In its own perverse way, Dumb & Dumber makes a convincing statement about the foolhardiness of recklessly following your heart.
Early on in the film, the Farrellys and Yellin include a moment that seems at first out of place in this picture, but that we later realize underscores everything that follows, making it matter to us, making us care. Cursing the sorry state of their lives and not wanting to go to
As a piece of writing, Dumb & Dumber suffers from some of the same weaknesses of many contemporary comedies. The two leads are given the burden of carrying most of the humor, resulting in extremely bland supporting characters who often spend much of the movie standing around watching Lloyd and Harry wreak their havoc (even Mary comes off as rather vanilla, a case not helped by Holly’s unremarkable portrayal of the role). The kidnapping plot, for all its usefulness in getting Lloyd and Harry on the road, does not really interest us in the slightest, and therefore, when the film is forced in the last fifteen minutes to kick in plot-wise and start tying up loose ends, some of the humor drains away and the results are a little fidget-inducing for the audience. And, as for any movie with this many jokes, not all of them land soundly. But the picture does contain one important lesson for the comedy screenwriter, a reminder of one of the central rules of storytelling that some of the best comedies have successfully broken. Screenwriting books and courses speak at length of character arcs, of the fact that a protagonist must undergo change and grow as a result of his journey in order for the story to be dramatically successful and satisfying for an audience. Well, comedies don’t always work that way. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. Many comedies find their humor in the reality of a chaotic, constantly shifting world butting up against a character who, through quirk of personality or idiosyncrasy or, in the case of Lloyd and Harry, extreme stupidity, are unwilling or indeed unable to change. Indeed, in many of these films, it is the character’s rock-solid personal identity that allows them to beat the odds and defeat their foes, who are stymied by the protagonists’ maddening consistency. Lloyd and Harry are a classic expression of this comic principle, as their bumbling, fumbling foolishness allows them to fend off Sea Bass, take out the hitmen, and bring down the kidnappers, as they all the while remain true to themselves and their friendship. Indeed, if Lloyd and Harry had learned some great lesson from their cross-country adventures, the film would likely not work as well as it does. But thankfully, these fellas’ bulbs remain dim to the end. When that Hawaiian Tropic bus pulls up, we think we know where the joke is
going. But then, we don’t know Lloyd and Harry.
Dumb & Dumber was Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s first produced feature. Starting with this film, and climaxing with their 1998 runaway smash There’s Something About Mary, they were arguably the most influential force in American film comedy until 2005, when Judd Apatow made The 40-Year-Old Virgin and switched up the game yet again. The Farrellys’ films established a template of combining knockabout gross-out humor with sentiment and romance that many filmmakers attempted to duplicate and very few came even close to matching, failing to grasp the delicate balancing act that made the Farrelly films work. Most would consider Mary to be the brothers’ masterpiece. But it’s my opinion that, with Dumb & Dumber, they hit their real home run their first time at bat.
By the way, did I mention that Lloyd and Harry's van is shaped like a sheepdog?