Remember when comic leading men were expected to be attractive? Cary Grant, David Niven, William Powell . . . those fellas may have been chased to the brink of madness by screwball heroines, but they never let it ruffle their European-cut suits or dislodge a single macassared hair. And even when plot developments required them to be shoved into something drastically unbecoming think of that frilly lady’s bathrobe Grant sported in Bringing Up Baby we understood that sartorial order would be restored before long. We understood that men (and women, too) could be funny and desirable and that those qualities could even be mutually enhancing.
So why is it that, when people get on their high horses about what the Farrelly brothers are doing to cinematic comedy, they never once discuss the offenses done to male pulchritude? Jim Carrey, of course, has made a career out of concealing his handsome features, but he never did that more successfully than in Dumb and Dumber, which encased his head in a bowl cut so disfiguring as to be actionable. It’s hard now even to look at Ben Stiller and not recall the freakishly hideous figure he cut in the opening segments of There’s Something About Mary. And in that same movie, the hitherto unimpeachable Matt Dillon was transformed, by the strategic insertion of false teeth, into Steve Buscemi’s less attractive younger brother.
So I was frankly a little terrified to see what outrages would be visited on the comely person of Chris Klein, star of the latest Farrelly gross-travaganza, Say It Isn’t So. (The sibling duo are the film’s producers.) Imagine my relief, then, to see him initially, at least wearing the same wedge cut he wore to such charming effect in Election.
Not for long.
Klein’s character, a tender-hearted animal rescue worker named Gilly Noble, has fallen in love with Jo (Heather Graham), a klutzy hair stylist who, in their first encounter, hacks his hair beyond recognition and, for good measure, scissors off the top part of his ear. (Who says romantic comedy has lost its enchantment?) The hair and ear recover, thankfully, but later in the film, for reasons that really aren’t worth going into, Gilly is forced to disguise himself in a beard made entirely of female pubic hair. To be fair, it’s one of the movie’s only good sight gags, but by the time it was over, I was permanently drained of desire for Chris Klein. Even if he were dressed like a gladiator and slathered in chocolate, I don’t think I could summon a hard-on.
And I’m beginning to think that’s the point. It’s telling that the most startling moment in Say It Isn’t So is not Gilly inadvertently plunging his fist into a cow’s anus but the much earlier scene of Gilly and Jo going to bed together. The sex itself is your basic nuzzling under sheets, but watching it, I realized I had never before seen missionary intercourse in a movie by the Farrelly brothers. We’ve always known, of course, that they represent an adolescent sensibility run amuck (though not nearly so clever and subversive a sensibility as Trey Parker and Matt Stone). What’s been less clear is that they represent an adolescent sexuality.
That’s why women in the Farrelly firmament are essentially glamorized big sisters: beautiful but unthreatening babes with sunny dispositions who seem more inclined to hold hands than get horizontal. (In There’s Something About Mary, Cameron Diaz can’t even identify a gob of jism when she sees one.) So it makes perfect sense that the plot of Say It Isn’t So hinges on the (mistaken) revelation that Gilly and Jo are brother and sister. It doesn’t even qualify as a plot twist because, with their bashful smiles and batting goldfish eyes, they’ve been behaving pretty much like siblings the whole time. In one shockingly corny scene, director J.B. Rogers even has them rolling through a field of puppies.
I realize now why the Farrelly brothers’ movies, for all their brevity, feel so slack to me. It’s not just the misfiring gags although there are plenty of those. It’s not just the buildups that never pay off although you always end up wishing the screenwriters had spent an extra hour or two in story conference. It’s the complete absence of sexual tension. In Say It Isn’t So, Heather Graham widens her cartoonish orbs, and Chris Klein dissolves into fumbles and cretinous grins and dim gazes, and we’re meant to think this has something to do with the way men and women relate. But when Gilly, hoping to stop Jo’s marriage to a rich young lout, crosses the country to find her, it’s simply impossible to accept it as the act of an obsessed lover. It’s more like watching a Corgi run after a moving van.
Say It Isn’t So has its share of smutty gags, but like other Farrelly movies, it is more comfortable with sex’s ancillaries and byproducts with semen and pubic hair than it is with sex itself. It seems almost to shy away from the actual act, in the way that giggly young boys talking dirty in their parents’ rec rooms refuse to imagine themselves going all the way. The Farrellys, who still believe in a world of “nice girls” (the blue-eyed kewpie dolls you go steady with) and “bad girls” (everyone else), never quite made it out of that rec room.
Louis Bayard and Nerve.com, Inc.