ME, MYSELF & IRENE

Directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly

Written by the Farrelly Brothers and Michael Cerrone

With Jim Carrey, Renée Zellwegger , Robert Forster and Chris Cooper

**1/2


Jon Katz's book GEEKS  mentions that a passion for  THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY has become a  marker of identity among computer geeks. While  all films mean something different to  individual spectators, it's rare for one to become both a blockbuster and a genuine cult film. (THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT also managed this, but it seemed to piss off at least half of its audience.) Even though I didn't fully embrace THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY myself, its synthesis of hip attitude with a thoroughly pop sensibility gave it some of the charge of 70s SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, grunge albums like Nirvana's NEVERMIND and Hole's LIVE THROUGH THIS, and PULP FICTION. (Using Jonathan Richman as a Greek chorus was a choice as idiosyncratic as Paul Thomas Anderson's decision to play an entire album's worth of Aimee Mann songs during MAGNOLIA, and the Farrelly brothers' selection of Steely Dan covers for this film's soundtrack, while slightly more commercial, is equally quirky.)  I liked  ME, MYSELF & IRENE even less than THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, but it's becoming clearer that the Farrelly brothers have brought a distinctive voice  to American comedy.

The gross-out/romantic comedy dichotomy of the Farrelly brothers' films is reflected in their hero, Charlie (Carrey), a kind and forgiving Rhode Island state trooper. Even when proof of his wife's infidelity arrives - in the form of 3 African-American babies - he doesn't get angry.  However, he develops a split personality when she leaves him. His alter ego, Hank,  expresses all the anger Charlie has held back, usually  in embarrassing or dangerous ways,  but Charlie is able to keep Hank under wraps through medication. When he ends up on a road trip to upstate New York with Irene (Zellwegger), a golf course supervisor being chased by corrupt cops, he leaves his pills behind  in a hotel room, forcing Irene to face her growing attraction to him while simultaneously dealing with his constant equivocation between the two personalities.

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY set the mold for recent  comedies like AMERICAN PIE and ROAD TRIP by basing its shock effects in romantic and sexual longing. Unfortunately, this has mixed results: I can't imagine how John Waters' PINK FLAMINGOS would have been improved by a subplot about Divine's quest for true love, or conversely, that Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges would have benefited from being able to make jokes about masturbation and castration. Perhaps taking their cues from a CINEMA SCOPE article that described them as "the last humanists," the Farrelly brothers have set out to prove they're fratboys who care.

I was amazed to learn that they were so offended by HAPPINESS that they bailed out of a  roundtable discussion  with Todd Solondz  for THE NEW YORK TIMES, but it's no surprise that ME, MYSELF & IRENE strives to be "politically incorrect" in  the safest  possible ways. While it and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY radiate male self-loathing, they simultaneously idealize their heroines. In THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, Cameron Diaz is spared the physical degradation befalling most of them men around her, and Irene is portrayed as a smart, resourceful woman fully capable of holding her own against Hank and the thugs threatening her. (Only in the finale do they turn her into a helpless victim.) Charlie's  sons may throw  "motherfucker," "bitch" and "shit" around often enough to suggest that they're auditioning for a spot on Ol' Dirty Bastard's next album, but they're also geniuses who rank at the top of the class and manage to teach themselves how to fly a helicopter. Compared to SOUTH PARK's  Eric Cartman, even Hank doesn't seem like all that bad a guy: his anger is rarely aimed at any specific group. (A white albino is the target of his only racist remark, and he makes up for it by later befriending the guy.)  While Carrey was willing to take his character in THE CABLE GUY all the way into the heart of darkness, he gives Hank, who takes as much physical punishment as he dishes out,  a surprising edge of vulnerability.

It's somewhat commendable that the Farrelly brothers want to shock without being mean-spirited, but the anxiety reflected in their films rings far truer than the sweetness. Any Freudian willing to put ME, MYSELF & IRENE on the couch is in for a field day: it's a goldmine of phallic symbols and anxiety about anal penetration. Justifying his decision to put THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY at #1 on his 1998 Top 10 list, David Edelstein suggested that it would have received more respect were it directed by David Cronenberg, and the gags here about straight men's fear of getting fucked up the ass recall eXistenZ. (ROAD TRIP improves on both films by treating the subject without the requisite truckload of angst.) In its final ten minutes, the mind/body split becomes literal, as Charlie and Hank struggle to save Irene while battling each other for control over their body.

Ironically, only a performer with Jim Carrey's precise facial and bodily control  could express this battle so well. The Jerry Lewis of our generation (and I mean that as a compliment), Carrey has yet to find his Frank Tashlin, and as a result, he's usually far outshined the films he's acted in. Only THE CABLE GUY and THE TRUMAN SHOW have done justice to his  gifts, while  MAN ON THE MOON fell flat almost every time it turned away from re-creating Andy Kaufman's performances.  Almost all the funny moments in ME, MYSELF & IRENE stem from Carrey, not the screenplay: a gag about a cow that won't stay dead only comes to life when Carrey gets on top of the animal  and tries to kill it with his hands. (Trust me, it's funnier than it sounds.) The one-joke treatment of the African-American characters may not be racist, but the gimmick of having them endlessly repeat variations on "this is one tough motherfuckin' differential equation" becomes painfully unfunny after the third go.

As uneven as  THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY was, the screenplay of ME, MYSELF & IRENE  makes it look like a model of compelling storytelling. Watching ME, MYSELF & IRENE feels like sitting through an entire SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE episode, including the commercials: there's that much dead space between the funniest moments. (The subplot about the criminal connections of Irene's ex-boyfriend  makes almost no sense.) Nor have the Farrelly brothers developed any real visual style yet. Apart from a handful of sharply edited sight gags, like a cut from Hank shitting on his neighbor's lawn to a close-up of dripping chocolate ice cream, their only visual ideas consist of  pointing the camera at the actors and keeping them in frame.

Since the Farrelly brothers have often been described as John Waters disciples, it's fitting that  ME, MYSELF & IRENE  combines a watered-down version of his 70s ethos with the "why we can't we {misfits of all stripes} all can't get along?" idealism of some of his later films. Unfortunately, Waters' forthcoming CECIL B. DEMENTED shows that he can do the job better himself. Nevertheless, some of their jabs from the id have real staying power: the image of Irene knocking a man out by clobbering him over the head with a dildo is as memorable as Cameron Diaz's protein-rich hair gel. If the brothers ever sort out whether they're indulging or satirizing  sexual anxiety,  they might finally make a film I could wholeheartedly like.  In the past, I've wondered if they would benefit from  devoting themselves entirely to gross-out or romantic comedy (although I didn't like DUMB & DUMBER, which concentrates on the former, any better than their other films), but ME, MYSELF & IRENE confirms that their voice lies in a synthesis of the two. It also  suggests that they have a long way to go towards perfecting that voice  or improving their craft, but even now, they sometimes hit the target.