Two For the Summer
"The Mask of Zorro" and "There's Something About Mary."
By Donna Bowman and Jim Ridley
JULY 27, 1998: Adventure movies almost always strike us as throwbacks to an earlier era of filmmaking, the era of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and The Great Train Robbery. For every moviegoer, there seems to be an archetypal memory of some rip-roaring yarn from their youth--a movie that defines the adventure of the movies themselves. For me, it was The Mark of Zorro, which I saw at a drive-in theater when I was 8 or 9. The grace of Tyrone Power and the evil Basil Rathbone made such an impression on me that ever since, I've been subconsciously comparing all subsequent adventures to this one movie.
That's why The Mask of Zorro, the latest movie version of the Zorro legend, strikes a deep chord in me. Now this is a movie, I feel in my bones, as I watch Zorro dispatch Spanish flunkies with a witty flourish. Minimally updated with modern filmmaking techniques, The Mask of Zorro relies chiefly on the tried-and-true staples of swordplay, stunts, and leading-man charisma (adding only the occasional massive explosion so we'll know we're in the '90s). And with swooningly romantic Antonio Banderas and arrestingly intense Anthony Hopkins as the leads, the movie catches fire long before evil Stuart Wilson lights any fuses.
The Mask of Zorro is also a throwback in the sense that it has plenty of plot to sustain and drive the action. Hopkins plays the original Zorro, Diego de la Vega, whose fight for the peasants of Mexico lands him in jail as the movie opens. Just before Diego is imprisoned, the Spanish governor Raphael Montero kills his wife and takes his baby daughter. Twenty years later, as Montero lands on the shores of California to start a new kingdom on the backs of enslaved peasants, Diego escapes. To save the Californians and to take his revenge, he takes as a pupil Alejandro (Banderas), a thief whose brother was killed by an American cavalry captain in league with Montero.
The brief training sequences reveal the sheer star power of the two leading men: Hopkins with his interior brooding and Banderas with his rambunctious athleticism both exhibit perfect control over their physical screen presence. In an extended scene at a party in Montero's mansion, Banderas turns on the blinding full wattage of his allure to seduce the villain's daughter Elena, played by the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones, while Hopkins, barely in focus in the background, still commands our attention with the merest flick of his eyes.
There are some narrow escapes that stretch credibility, and the pacing leading up to the final battle occasionally falters. But in an age when stars too often act by goggling at invisible computer graphics, there's something deeply satisfying about watching acrobatics on horseback at a full gallop. And most satisfying of all is the appearance of actors with that old-time star quality--actors whom woman want and men want to be. May The Mask of Zorro spawn a thousand throwback projects, and may Banderas long reign as king of the masked men.
Watching There's Something About Mary is like having someone sit in front of you for two hours chewing with his mouth open. Every five or 10 minutes, the sheer infantile grossness will send you reeling with mad laughter; the rest of the time, your gaze may wander toward the exit.
A slob farce with about a six-pack of lowbrow highlights and a whole case of empties, There's Something About Mary stars Ben Stiller as a mopey would-be writer who's obsessed with finding the girl who left him on prom night 13 years before. To that end, he hires a sleazy private eye--Matt Dillon with a porn-star mustache--who promptly tells him his Mary's now obese and bedridden, with several kids by as many different fathers. As Stiller discovers, however, Mary is actually lithe, wealthy Cameron Diaz, and Dillon is using all his research to worm his own way into her good graces.
The directors, Peter and Bobby Farrelly--the brain trust behind the spotty Dumb and Dumber and the execrable Kingpin--score some cathartic belly laughs on effrontery alone. Their talent is for gross-out sex gags and hyperbolic cruelty, and as long as they stick to defibrillating drugged-out dogs and swapping jism for hair gel, they really know how to tickle your inner 13-year-old. But the constant retard jokes and gags about cripples are irredeemably sour--especially combined with the Farrellys' grotesque sentimentality. It's awful to wring yuks out of Mary's brother's mental condition; it's worse to make him a lovable pet, so that the audience says, "Aw, bless his heart," every time he appears.
In interviews, the Farrellys take the obvious dodge that they're sending up "political correctness" by ridiculing people in wheelchairs or people with mental disabilities. That wouldn't be the first time somebody confused political correctness with common decency. The reason the gags don't work, though, isn't some self-righteous liberalism on the audience's part; it's that mockery is a weapon, a leveler, and only a creep would use it against underdogs of any stripe. Here, as in the snarky, coldly calculated The Opposite of Sex, no zinger is too risible as long as it's delivered by an unlikable character: That way nobody can accuse the filmmakers of being bullies (or homophobes, or racists), but they can still get their cheap laughs. That also effectively makes the movie's critics seem uptight, which may explain the hysterical overpraise that There's Something About Mary is getting--including marks for the Farrellys' "bravery."
As filmmaking, There's Something About Mary is so dull and functional it could've been shot by surveillance cameras: The directors' idea of staging a conversation is ping-ponging back and forth between talking heads. (Their major influence must've been Atari.) The ramshackle staging sometimes leaves you unsure even how to respond, as in a poorly constructed subplot involving a suitor in leg braces (that amazing clown Lee Evans).
But better moviemaking might only have dampened the explosive crudeness of the gags that work. And give the Farrellys credit for two very astute casting choices. Well on his way to becoming the funniest straight man in movie history, Ben Stiller makes a brilliant shtick of thwarted politeness: To me, he gets the movie's biggest laughs trying to make small talk with a hitchhiker who's plainly a few beans shy of a burrito. And as a running musical chorus, like Nat King Cole in Cat Ballou, that rockin' leprechaun Jonathan Richman sounds a welcome note of sweet, innocent mischief every time he appears. Maybe that's because you wouldn't hear Jonathan Richman making retard jokes.
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