It's hard to overestimate the impact of "There's Something About Mary," which celebrates its 15th anniversary this week (it was released on July 15, 1998 -- scroll down for "There's Something About Mary: Where Are They Now?").
Even casual viewers of the film can never hear the phrase "frank and beans" the same way. The Farrelly Brothers' comedy dared to go where few comedies had gone before, and where countless others have tried to go since.
"Mary" wasn't the first gross-out comedy (though it may be one of the first to make a sight gag out of a zipper-mangled penis, or a misplaced glob of body fluid). But it was the first to work that gross-out humor into a sweet romantic comedy about believable, well-rendered characters. It was, in a perverse way, a movie for everybody, with the scatological humor targeting male audiences and the character-driven romance targeting female audiences. But what the film revealed is that women enjoy bodily-fluid humor, too (at least if it's relevant to the story), and that guys actually like romance (at least if the woman involved is a babe like Cameron Diaz).
That sweet spot the film hit so precisely between the guy-comedy and chick-flick extremes is a very precise and difficult area to target; indeed, the Farrellys themselves have never hit it since, despite 15 years of trying. Neither have most of the comedies that owe "Mary" a tip of the hat, from the Todd Phillips movies (like "Old School" and the "Hangover" trilogy, which traffic in caricatures and tend to lean heavily on the gross-out side) to the "American Pie" movies, which are both raunchy and sweet-natured but still have blind spots when it comes to fleshing out female characters.
The closest have been the movies from the Judd Apatow stable, movies like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" "Knocked Up," "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," and "Bridesmaids." They're movies that tend to work for both men and women, where the bodily-fluid jokes emerge organically from the characters. More important, perhaps, is that the Apatow-guided films have a mastery of cringe comedy -- that comedy of embarrassing moments compounded by awkward silences that make viewers laugh while they wince.
"Mary" had cringe-worthy moments galore. In fact, Ben Stiller has built an entire career replicating his "Mary" character and those moments of supreme humiliation he endured, usually in public. The subtext of cringe comedy (which also underlies the whole mock-reality-show sitcom genre, from "The Office" to "Modern Family") is that there is no such thing as privacy, and that every embarrassing moment in your life is likely to be multiplied by a factor of 10 or 100 or 1 million, depending on how many others are present to witness your shame, whether in person or over the Internet.
No one does squirmy public embarrassment better (or at least more often) than Stiller, from "Along Came Polly" to "The Heartbreak Kid" to the "Fockers" trilogy. Stiller wasn't a bankable box office star before "Mary," but he's been one ever since. And so have Stiller's similarly cringe-worthy emulators, Mini-Mes, like Paul Rudd and Jason Bateman.
Diaz, too, has done little since "Mary" that isn't a variation on her role in that film, the smart but naïve, slightly goofy, good-hearted bombshell. The movie vaulted her into the top pay bracket for actresses (by 2000, she was earning $20 million a film, just like Julia Roberts). Her characters in "Charlie's Angels," "The Sweetest Thing," "In Her Shoes," "The Holiday," "What Happens in Vegas," and even the "Shrek" animated films owe a debt to Mary. It's only recently, with "Bad Teacher" (which turned her sweet persona on its head), that she may have found a way to evolve past her breakout character. Still, decades from now, when she dies, the first movie likely to be mentioned in her obituary will be "There's Something About Mary."
The only "Mary" principal who didn't really try to capitalize on his role was Matt Dillon. His sleazy sleuth Pat Healy may be the most hilarious thing he's ever done, but he treated it like just another in his long filmography of shady character parts. He and Diaz dated for three years, a relationship that ended shortly after the filming of "Mary," and since then, they've pursued very different paths. After "Mary," he continued to play offbeat parts until one of those roles, the racist-yet-heroic cop he played in "Crash," earned him an Oscar nomination. His last lead role in a mainstream movie was in 2006's comedy "You, Me and Dupree"; since then, he's returned to the smaller character parts and independent movies he seems to enjoy the most.
As for Peter and Bobby Farrelly, their movies since "Mary" -- including "Me, Myself and Irene," "Shallow Hal," "Stuck On You," "Fever Pitch," "The Heartbreak Kid," "Hall Pass," and "The Three Stooges" -- have failed to duplicate the magic of their biggest hit. Some of the elements are usually there -- the sweet, character-driven stories, the envelope-pushing body humor, even the occasional star turn by the likes of Stiller or Jim Carrey -- but nothing has jelled.
Still, they have to look at the landscape of comedies that have come out since "Mary," many of them lesser imitations, gross-outs for the sake of gross-outs, and recognize that "Mary" made the multiplex safe for body fluid-spewing R-rated comedies and raunchy rom-coms. Oh, and that it gave a much-needed career boost to legendary folk-punk troubadour Jonathan Richman. (Sure, he composed the immortal "Roadrunner," but like Diaz, it's "Mary" that he'll be remembered for.)
And all that should make the Farrellys smile whenever they oh-so-carefully zip their pants.