By Nick Pinkerton
Dumb and Dumber To
Dir. Peter and Bobby Farrelly, U.S., New Line Cinema/Universal
A good litmus test to see if you are the target audience for Dumb and Dumber To: Do you think the title’s misspelling is funny? Me, I busted a gut—and I thought I was well over goofy sequel titles. After the early nineties bumper crop of The Naked Gun 2½, Loaded Weapon 1 (heh), and Hot Shots! Part Deux, where do you go from there?
The first Dumb and Dumber was a rough contemporary to those films, which date to what I will call the Movies I Saw with My Dad Era. In it, Jim Carrey played Lloyd Christmas, a trim idiot with a chipped incisor and a tightened-up version of Moe Howard’s haircut living a base subsistence-level existence in Providence, Rhode Island, with his best friend, Harry, played by Jeff Daniels as a slovenly, untucked idiot with a wispy blonde bedhead to shame Brian Wilson. The movie was released for Christmas of 1994, that year’s third vehicle for Carrey, the first breakout star of FOX’s sketch comedy show In Living Color, his other films being Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask. They cumulatively earned three-quarters of a billion dollars, which at the time was received as an indication of society-wide decline.
This may be difficult to believe today, but there was for a moment a sense that Carrey was an actually dangerous, destabilizing force. He hung out with black folks—on TV, at least—and his assaultive, literally-anything-for-a-laugh performance style was taken by many as a sign of de-evolution which was bound to reduce America’s children to the level of rhesus monkeys. Dumb and Dumber was also, not insignificantly, the directorial debut of Peter and Bobby Farrelly, whose There’s Something About Mary, released four years later, would mark a Lexington-Concord-sized event in the history of American screen comedy, the critical mass breakthrough for what was once quaintly referred to as “gross-out humor,” but now scarcely requires a special designation. To do so would be like designating “Chinese food” in Shanghai.
Twenty years is a long time, as the opening of Dumb and Dumber To acknowledges. If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the setup and the punchline—the movie is packed with enough jokes that it can afford to hand a few out for free. Harry visits Lloyd at the home for invalids, as he’s been doing on Wednesdays for the last two decades. Comatose Lloyd, we learn, has been confined to wheelchair and catheter since failing to catch the fancy of Lauren Holly in the first film. (Come to think of it, he seemed fine when the credits rolled, but To doesn’t reward this sort of close reading.) When Harry announces that he won’t be coming any more, this after casually clenching a bag of urine in his teeth, Lloyd sputters back to life with a triumphant “Gotcha!”—he’s been playing possum all along.
From here the Farrellys—who share screenplay credit with a small platoon of accomplices, including longtime collaborator Mike Cerrone—lay down exactly as much plot as they need to function as a smooth delivery system for the yuks. Harry requires a kidney transplant, and his only hope is the daughter that he’s only just learned he has after checking his mail for the first time in twenty-three years. (His parents cannot help, as he is astounded to learn from the small, wizened Asian couple that he calls Mom and Dad that he’s adopted.) In order to find the daughter and her kidneys, Harry and Lloyd go on the road again, replete with obligatory Willie Nelson soundtrack cue. First it’s Rhodie to Maryland, where they’ve just missed the long-lost Penny (Rachel Melvin), but meet her adopted father, Nobel laureate Dr. Pinchelow (Steve Tom); his scheming, unscrupulous wife, Adele (Laurie Holden), who’s plotting to kill him; and her chauffeur/lover/co-conspirator, Travis (Rob Riggle). From there it’s Maryland to El Paso, where Penny is set to deliver, in her father’s absence, a keynote speech at a conference which brings together the world’s greatest geniuses. Harry and Lloyd crash the party when Harry commandeers the esteemed (but reclusive) Dr. Pinchelow’s identity, which leads to some time-honored schtick in which his blithering idiocy is taken for the sagacious pronouncements of a cryptic genius.
When writing about a Spencer’s Gifts fire sale of gags like Dumb and Dumber To, there’s a temptation to review by way of list-making, ticking off one by one the bits that got you. Rather than disappearing down that rabbit hole, I’ll say that I laughed, and laughed consistently. As Lloyd says after very nearly being clipped by a bus, “comedy is all about timing,” and To has the stuff. (The fatal-blindside-by-speeding-vehicle joke comes back later, and it slays.) It lacks the blithe, jaunty momentum of its predecessor, and it doesn’t produce nearly so many screengrab-ready images (Harry and Lloyd in ruffle fronted orange and powder blue tuxes with matching top hats, in gauche ski and Western wear, or crying their eyes out at a sentimental telephone commercial), but the comedy for the most part has the feeling of growing organically from character and situations, and you rarely get a sense of having taken a costly detour to arrive at a rimshot.
When the movie does get sidetracked, it’s usually a matter of hitting the expected callbacks to the first movie, in catchphrases (“Suck me sideways,” “Ah lahk it ah loht”), props (a cameo from the Mutt Cutts van), incidental characters (Billy, the blind boy who Lloyd sold a decapitated parakeet, now all grown up), comic vignettes (another romantic fantasy sequence for Lloyd involving severe testicular trauma), and local-color inside jokes (letting the camera linger on the Big Blue Bug pest control advert on I-95 out of Providence). These concessions to nostalgia put a drag on proceedings, but To has a leg up on the original in its supporting cast. A game Melvin, playing a cretinous chip off the ol’ block, offers a valuable outlet for more low-IQ jokes, which might otherwise be sorely lacking. As heavies go, Holden and Riggle are an improvement on the first film’s team of Mike Starr and Karen Duffy, and they make hay with material involving podophilia and camouflage unitards. The legendary Fraida Felcher, the onetime town pump of Cranston, RI, whom Harry believes to have been the mother of his child, actually appears here, played by Kathleen Turner. Her stretch-marks and “blowfish jowls” are comic fodder—Barbara Hershey also gets the business, in a rather surreal sight gag—but the last laugh is on Harry and Lloyd, because she’s lived a helluva life (listen to that voice!) while they’ve remained in a suspended animation of ignorant bliss. Finally, To doubles down on the first movie’s malapropisms (i.e. “I have a rapist wit”), with such gems as “suburban legend,” “Leprechaun colonies,” “steamed colleague,” “biographical father,” and also gets some honest-to-God knee-slappers that spring from the boys’ miscomprehension of “Asperger’s” and the phrase “survived by his parents.”
Many of these would not be out of place coming from “Slip” Mahoney, the character Leo Gorcey played variations on in the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys movies across the span of three decades. And while twenty years ago the Farrellys might have momentarily seemed to have been some sort of vanguard, today it’s more than ever evident that they were throwbacks all along—a fact recognized in a 2000 appreciation by Kent Jones in Film Comment, which placed the Farrelly oeuvre, then four movies and counting, in the lineage of “films that grow directly out of the vaudeville tradition,” their work “rigorously fixed within the framework of people in the lower half of the economic spectrum.” And so it remains: when Harry brings Lloyd back to their dismal, sparsely furnished apartment, he introduces his new roommate, who’s occupied with cooking up a batch of “rock candy”—actually, crystal meth. (Jones is hardly the only intellectually respectable champion of the Farrellys—I’ve heard no less a personage than P. Adams Sitney sing the praises of Kingpin.)
Impressed and incredulous, Harry boggles at the fact that Lloyd “wasted the best years of [his] life” for a joke. As for the Dumb and Dumber alumni, well: Carrey wasted years chasing prestige, the only actor who could play Ace Ventura lowering himself to parts that anyone could’ve taken on, and squandered still more years in special effects-heavy blockbuster projects in the vein of The Mask, which were guaranteed to overwhelm his particular presence. Daniels has had his quiet life and his little theater in Michigan, and a quietly fine career; he picks up Harry Dunne like an old St. Bernard picking up a spit-soaked, gnawed-through tennis ball. The Farrellys, per Jones’s prediction, were compromised by their success, spreading themselves too thin in the new millennium with their attempts at franchising; their professional anxiety was reflected in 2003’s exceedingly touching Stuck on You. In the years since that film, they’ve been best with material that plays to their salty base, like the 2013 omnibus Movie 43—overseen by Peter, and fit for an Elk’s Lodge smoker—or their Three Stooges. It seems a shame that Harry and Lloyd and the Farrellys didn’t come along at a moment that allowed them to keep their routines in constant practice, as the Stooges or Gorcey and Huntz Hall could. I’m glad there’s a second Dumb and Dumber movie, but it should be the thirtieth. Still, Dumb and Dumber To is a benchmark work for all involved—a great leap backwards.