Do you want to hear something shocking? I managed to avoid seeing There's Something About Mary for seventeen consecutive years, from the time it was released in 1998 until yesterday afternoon.
Maybe you don't think that's very shocking. Hell, there's a good chance that you've never seen it either. After all, everyone has pop culture blindspots, and it isn't like There's Something About Mary is the film that cured cancer. But there are two reasons why I think that's kind of notable that I managed to evade Mary's cultural omnipresence for so long.
The first is because of my age. Consider the following facts: I was a junior in high school when it came out. It is a gross out comedy where a hot woman uses semen as hair gel. Its domestic box office haul was over $176 million dollars. If you add up one and one and one you get three, and by three I mean the realization that "oh, every single teenager in America must have seen that movie multiple times in the theater." Well, every single teenager except me - I was too stubborn to give it a try.
Here's the thing: I certainly knew that Mary existed and I certainly knew that people thought it was hilarious. But I wasn't persuaded by its popularity because all the other kids had also loved the previous Farrelly Brothers movies Kingpin and Dumb and Dumber while I had hated them. At the time I was very sensitive to comedic bullying, and I felt that those movies were laughing at their characters and not with them, so I found them to be crass and unenjoyable. Everything I heard about Mary made it sound like it was going to be in that vein, too. All of the set pieces that people were obsessed with - Ben Stiller gets his dick caught in his zipper! Matt Dillon electrocutes a dog! Cameron Diaz accidentally rubs spunk into her bangs! - they all sounded cruel to me. I didn't want to watch a movie that was going to infuriate me more than it was going to entertain me.
Fine, so it didn't personally appeal to me. But here's where we get into the second reason why my avoidance is notable: because I'm an anal retentive cinephile and I regularly force myself to watch movies that I probably won't enjoy because they are "important" or "culturally relevant." A few years ago I made a serious commitment to try to see every film that is in the American canon, even the ones that seem incredibly tedious or unpleasant, and I've done a pretty damn good job of pursuing that goal. For example, I've watched every film that's ever won Best Picture and I've seen almost every film on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best movies. (Don't get cocky 1927 version of the Jazz Singer - I'm still coming for you!) It's been years since someone at a party was able to say to me "what, you haven't seen [x]? That's crazy!"
But you know what's actually crazy? The fact that I'm willing to force myself to sit through, say, Sophie's Choice, but not There's Something About Mary, which might not be to my taste but which is at least not about the Holocaust. So it was decided: it was time for me to take the plunge. I was going to have to get on the same page as everyone else in my generation. I was finally going to discover what the mysterious "something" about Mary was.
Okay... So, now I've seen There's Something About Mary. And I have to say: it was not what I expected it to be. It wasn't cruel at all - actually, it was surprisingly sweet.
Mary's story starts off when the main characters Ted (played by Stiller) and Mary (played by Diaz) are in high school. Ted is a nerd who is struggling to get a date for the prom and Mary is the hottest girl in school - she's so hot, in fact, that all of the boys (Ted included) are too intimidated to come within ten feet of her. However, one day Ted defends Mary's developmentally disabled brother from a bully and his kindness impresses Mary so much that she asks him out. At that point the only reason why Ted wouldn't use the famous Simpsons line "everything's coming up Milhouse!" is because his name isn't Milhouse.
Unfortunately, the whole penis-zippering thing ends up derailing their dance experience before it can start, but that doesn't matter - that whole sequence starts the movie out on the right foot. It establishes Ted as a well meaning (if a bit hapless) guy and Mary as a person who fundamentally respects compassion, and their decency provides an emotional anchor that makes the movie's more extreme gags palatable. For example, there are a few scenes where the movie's villain Healy (played by Dillon) says some very un-P.C. things about the mentally handicapped, but it's clear that the joke is on him and that he's going to get his comeuppance at the end, so those 'jokes' didn't offend me as much as they would have in a different context.
That said, there are parts of the movie that are fairly obnoxious - they just aren't the parts that I would have expected to be object to. I had never thought about this movie in a feminist context, so I was not prepared at all for how ridiculously underwritten the Mary character would be. She is one step shy of being a bro's ideal of an angel. She's young and beautiful. She's a rich doctor and an avid golfer. Her ideal man is someone who wants to drink beer and eat hot dogs and watch sports with her. She is the very definition of what Gillian Flynn calls "the cool girl" - someone who is extremely feminine in form but incredibly masculine in mind.
In fact, she's such an over-the-top vision of perfectness that she almost seems like a parody of cool girls - like the script is using her as a Trojan Horse to mock all the bullshit conventions that romantic comedies have built up around female characters over the years. But There's Something About Mary never pushes her ridiculous traits far enough to justify that interpretation. In fact, the final scene is such a ridiculous load of Hollywood hogwash that it definitively proves that Mary is a rom-com and not a parody of rom-coms.
Over the course of the movie Mary has been courted by several different men - Ted, of course, plus the scheming Healy, plus a pizza delivery guy, plus a stalker, plus NFL quarterback Brett Favre. All of them have been total shits to her in one way or another - lying to her, manipulating her, letting her eat an entire meal at a restaurant with ejaculate in her hair - and in the real world Mary probably kick them to the curb once she saw how awful they were. After all, she's a young rich doctor and there's just no reason for her to think she couldn't do better than this particular bunch of crazy a-holes. Unfortunately, rom-com leads aren't allowed to say "enh, none of the five people I've met this year are my ideal husband so I'm going to try one more time to find a suitable mate." No, rom-coms have to give us the "happy ending" where our heroine marries the hero, even if the last two hours have proven that the "hero" is actually a "deranged stalker." I understand why this movie ends with Mary picking Ted - but I do have to think that someone that beautiful and generous and well to do doesn't need to settle for a jealous clown who can't even operate his own pants without hurting himself.
Still, I can't deny that There's Something About Mary was far more enjoyable than I predicted it would be. (It was certainly more fun than Sophie's Choice.) It has held up surprisingly well, mostly because Cameron Diaz is charismatic enough to cover up a lot of the Mary character's weaknesses, and once you get past that this movie is all good. But even if I hadn't enjoyed the movie I would still be glad that I watched it, because now I can go into parties secure in the knowledge that if someone asks me "have you seen Ben Stiller ejaculate on his own ear?" I can say, yes, yes I have.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go try and track down a copy of the Jazz Singer because I would hate to be at a social function where someone brings up the most talked about movie of 1927 and force me to admit in public that I've never seen it... Oh god, what a nightmare that would be...