If you were a teenager during the latter half of the 1990s, then there’s a great chance that Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly, collectively known as the Farrelly brothers, were two of your idols. The siblings had a trio of comedy films that became instant classics. Their sense of humor was chaotic, raunchy, and over-the-top in its physicality. They were The Three Stooges for a new generation. What directors like Mel Brooks and John Landis had been to the 1970s and 80s, with films like Blazing Saddles, Animal House, and Spaceballs, the Farrelly brothers were to the Clinton years.
Their films worked by being tailored to a certain demographic: teenagers. During the first half of the decade, other creators produced comedies such as Home Alone, Sister Act, and Mrs. Doubtfire. While those are all great films in their own right, they were still safe, no matter how hard they made you laugh. The Farrelly brothers aimed to change what we were laughing at, demanding a response from some of the grossest and shocking scenes ever put to film at that time. Teenagers were a prime target for that brand of comedy, and it gave kids of that era something that they could claim ownership of, as they went beyond watching the films that their parents grew up on and recommended.
'Dumb and Dumber' Gave the Farrelly Brothers Instant Success
They started hot right off the bat in 1994 with their biggest film being their first film, which may have been part of the issue with the films later, for rather than steadily growing in their filmography, they were instead trying to live up to the spoils of immediate success. That success came in the form of 1994’s Dumb and Dumber. The film came out at the absolutely perfect time. 1994 was the year of Jim Carrey. The In Living Color star exploded onto the feature film scene with a trifecta of hits that few have been able to reduplicate. Earlier in the year came Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, followed by the even bigger The Mask. By the end of the year, audiences were willing to go to the theater to watch anything he was in. It just so happened that the next, Dumb and Dumber, was perhaps the best of them all.
Peter and Bobby Farrelly both wrote the script with Bobby taking credit as director. The casting of Carrey as one of the film’s two dimwits, Lloyd Christmas, wasn’t part of some plan to piggyback off Carrey’s success. Dumb and Dumber had been filmed before his other two classics of the year were even released. He was the obvious and perfect choice though to play such a role, as was the unconventional pick of Jeff Daniels as his equally stupid sidekick Harry Dunne. The two are like pinballs, bouncing back and forth in a machine, creating one wild scene after another in this tale of two doofuses who go on a road trip to return a briefcase to a woman, completely oblivious to the fact that the briefcase is filled with ransom money for her kidnaped husband’s captors.
Take your pick on what scene or quote is your favorite. Dumb and Dumber has it all. There’s a blind kid playing with a decapitated parakeet, the atomic peppers death scene, the insane montage of Harry and Lloyd’s spending spree when they discover the cash, and of course, the lengthy bathroom scene when Lloyd spike’s Harry’s drink with a laxative. It was the hijinks of Home Alone or Mrs. Doubtfire turned up to eleven. Almost three decades later we’re still quoting lines like, “You wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” and “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”
'Kingpin' & 'There's Something About Mary' Kept the Farrelly's Brand of Comedy Hot
The overwhelming box office success of Dumb and Dumber led to a quick turnaround for their next film, 1996’s Kingpin. While not quite the instant phenomenon that their first film was, this was no sophomore slump, as it became a favorite through its constant rotation on cable TV. Starring big names like Woody Harrelson, Bill Murray, and Randy Quaid, the film centers on the wacky premise of an ex-bowler, Roy (Harrelson), who decides to manage an Amish man, Ishmael (Quaid), in his quest to become a professional bowler. Oh, and Harrelson has a prosthetic hand just to make things fun. And Murray is here, on fire in classic form with some of the best ad-libs. The characters are again off kilter and there’s plenty of physical comedy, such as when Ishmael defecates in a urinal.
The duo ended their trilogy of brilliance with 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. The film was a box office bonanza and one of the best and most memorable movies of the year. It follows Ben Stiller as Ted, a grown man who missed out on his chance of being with his dream girl, Mary (Cameron Diaz) when he was a teenager, but now, a decade and a half later, he is trying to get a second chance. It keeps going wrong for Ted in the most hysterical of ways, such as the so gross and shocking hair gel scene that will have you doubled over laughing and struggling to breathe from its sheer boldness to go in that direction.
That doesn’t mean that the humor in the Farrelly brothers’ films was superficial. By the late 90s you could find gross and perverted comedies for teenagers everywhere, but theirs worked because there was depth beyond the explosive diarrhea and zipped up testicles. Harry and Lloyd are idiots, but they love each other like brothers. Roy is a drunk, but you want him to have one more moment in the sun. Ted is a goof, but he loves Mary and deserves to be happy. Beyond the pratfalls and sex jokes are likable characters who mean well and just want to see their dreams come true. It's impossible to dislike them, no matter what disgusting thing they do.
The 2000s Saw the Farrelly Brothers Repeating Themselves to Diminished Returns
Then that changed, almost suddenly. 2000-2001 saw the Farrelly brothers direct a whopping three films, which may have been part of the problem, as they seemed to become an assembly line for their brand rather than taking the time to craft something and make it stand out on its own. There was Me, Myself, & Irene, which put the brothers back with the man who had made them famous, Jim Carrey. The only problem was that his character here, a man with a split personality named Charlie, came off as more annoying than lovable. It was Jim Carrey playing Jim Carrey when audiences had started to get bored with the worn schtick. The film is lazy, a half assed attempt at trying to recreate the past that feels like leftovers from better works.
Then came Osmosis Jones, the live action mixed with animation comedy that tried to be the next Who Framed Roger Rabbit without really knowing what it wanted to be on its own. The animation scenes were neat, but the scenes with live actors were dull, and the comedy was dumbed down and aimed at kids. The audience the Farrelly brothers had built didn’t buy into it.
After that was Shallow Hal, a funny enough but tame comedy that tried to recreate the feel of There’s Something About Mary. Stuck on You, with Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear as conjoined twins was okay, but it seemed to exist simply for the premise and what jokes could be done with it. Fever Pitch, with Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore, was a remake that didn’t need to exist. The Heartbreak Kid and Hall Pass followed, neither making much of a dent, as they were just formulaic comedies following the same predictable approach.
In 2012, the Farrelly brothers gave into their identity. If their early films felt akin to The Three Stooges, they would just make a movie called The Three Stooges. You can’t copy the brilliance of three legendary acts though, leaving the film feeling forced. In 2013, they had their biggest failure with the widely panned and Razzie award-winning Movie 13, which was directed solely by Peter. Desperation it seems led to the Farrellys reuniting with Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels for Dumb & Dumber To, a film made a decade too late that was entertaining enough but felt like a clone of the past, offering nothing new, but just the hits.
Peter Farrelly Showed With 'Green Book' That the Brothers Still Had Creative Life
In 2018, Peter Farrelly took a huge risk and swung for the fences with a film totally out of he and his brother’s wheelhouse. Green Book was not a pervy teen sex comedy with swinging genitalia and pratfalls. It was instead a drama based on the true story about a Black pianist and the white driver who takes him to his gigs. Starring Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali, the serious look at race relations was an unexpected hit at a box office cluttered with superhero films. Just as impressive were its critical accolades, as Green Book took home three Oscars, including Best Picture. Though not nominated for Best Director, Peter Farrelly had persevered through failures to try something out of his comfort zone. He had heard the criticisms of how he and Bobby’s films had become watered down parodies of their early favorites and sought to prove everyone wrong by showing that they could still make a memorable film. He succeeded.
Peter and Bobby Farrelly don’t work together like they used to, with Peter having the hefty film schedule now. No matter what they do from here on out, they will always be linked for the force of nature comedy they created in the 90s. Maybe they will work together on another feature film one day and rekindle what once was, not trying to recreate what they’ve already done, but like Peter made a drama outside his comfort zone, to make a comedy that challenges both them and the audience. The Farrellys were at their best when they took risks. In an era where comedies have faded away from the cinema, we could surely use a risky reinvention of a dying genre.