The Farrelly brothers arguably peaked with There’s Something About Mary, a caustic slice of anti-80s nostalgia that marked the precise moment when grossout comedy started to give way to cringe comedy. We start with a parody of the 80s fetish for the 50s – a bucolic neighbourhood, where Ted Stroehman, played by Ben Stiller, is desperate for a date to his high school prom. After his crush rejects him, he’s unexpectedly asked by Mary Jensen, played by Cameron Diaz, who takes a shine to him when he defends her intellectually disabled brother Warren, played by W. Earl Brown, from the local bully. However, Ben catches his testicles in his zipper when using Mary’s bathroom, and is whisked to hospital instead of the dance, forcing her to fall back upon her ex-boyfriend, “Woogie” to escort her in his place.
We now cut to the present. Ted is living and working in Providence, but has never stopped thinking about Mary. Upon discovering that she’s living in Miami, he hires private investigator Pat Healy, played by Matt Dillon, to track her down, on the advice of his best friend Dom Woganowski, played by Chris Elliott. It’s here that Ed Decter and John J. Strauss’ mercurial narrative structure really starts to shine, as Pat falls in love with Mary himself, and convinces Ted that she’s lost her looks, personality and panache. When Ted learns, from a third party, that Mary is still the same as ever, he assumes that Pat simply never looked her up, and heads to Miami to seek her out himself. Meanwhile, Pat has moved to Miami, stalks Mary, and then dates Mary, despite the objections of her best friend Tucker, a disabled architect played by Lee Evans, who turns out to be another stalker, and bands together with Pat to discredit Ted.
As if that wasn’t complicated enough, the final twist is that Dom Woganowski, Ted’s best friend, is actually “Woogie,” Mary’s ex-boyfriend – and, we learn, the reason she moved to Miami in the first place. After high school, Woogie started stalking Mary at university, forcing her to take out a restraining order, and then change her name, before heading to the Sunshine State to remove herself entirely from his purview. By encouraging Ted to use Pat to seek Mary out, Woogie has actually been tracking down Mary himself, without alerting her to the fact.
That complex narrative structure is the film’s way of coming to terms with the changing status of stalking in the mid-late 1990s. No sooner had stalking come into the popular consciousness as a pathological trait than it started to shift again in the advent of online dating and digital romance. The film presents us with a spectrum of stalkers, from an overt psychopath (Woogie) to a conventional romantic lead (Ted), as if to trace out the imminent normalisation of a certain kind of stalking when romance started to head online. Yet that process hasn’t quite happened in the film either, meaning that Ted never quite occupies the role of romantic lead comfortably or naturally, which in turn prevents the film ever settling into a regular romcom. Most of the characters spend most of the film doing stuff that would only take a couple of clicks a decade later, but it doesn’t seem quite right relayed in real time and space.
More specifically, virtually everyone in the film is following, watching or stalking Mary. Most of the scenes are spent watching, talking about watching, or watching others watching – and this growing habit isn’t confined to dating either. Mary’s housemate Magda, played by Lin Shaye, keeps a walkie-talkie beside her couch at all times, so that she can listen to any cellular phone conversations within a half-mile radius. While there are several twists in the plot, they’re all ultimately the same twist – that everyone is stalking Mary, even or especially those men who seemed to be most invested in protecting her from stalkers. With stalkers everywhere, stalking is naturalised, but never quite enough to make this a comfortable comedy either. Instead, Ben’s incomplete effort to bridge the gap between creepy and romantic opens up a dystonal space of cringe comedy that would influence countless comedies to come. Looking in the other direction, Mary’s favourite film is Harold and Maude – a proto-cringe comedy, if you will, in which the two lead characters spend a great deal of time just watching each other, trying to assess whether their weird romance really has legs.
In that sense, There’s Something About Mary looks back to the freakier fringes of New Hollywood to move past grossout comedy and produce a cringe blueprint for the future. Unlike the American films of the 70s, however, this cringiness comes from a new sense of always being plugged in – never being able to retreat to a critical distance from discomforting situations. While the grossout scenes are as vivid and visceral as in the Farrelly’s other 90s films, they’s suffused with a new kind of painful awkwardness, and often target our ears, rather than our eyes. When Ted finally rips his zipper down through his testicles, we cut to a bone-curdling scream, while the central joke of the film sees Ted ejaculate onto his ear without realising it. This connection between sound and cringe forms part of a broader collapse of diegetic and non-diegetic sound that makes it very difficult to extract ourselves from the most painful moments. Warren functions, in that respect, as the cipher for the audience, contorting his body into spasms whenever anyone approaches his ears too closely.
This collapse of diegetic and non-diegetic noise, between sound that is inside and outside the scene, is perhaps clearest in the film’s soundtrack, which is provided by Jonathan Richman of the Modern Lovers. Richman periodically appears in situ, performing songs that riff on the action, but it’s unclear whether or not he can be seen by the characters. Sometimes they glide right past him, but in the final scene a minor character shoots his drum player, so he’s never decisively situated outside the film, which means that we aren’t either, given that all his songs are directed squarely to camera. Richman’s presence also anchors a stately flow of people in the background, cushioning the stalking within a broader, more inchoate sense of networking – the same networking that brought the men to Mary, whether through Pat’s investigative business, or Norm’s work as a pizza delivery boy, which is when he first caught sight of her.
Since the stalker hasn’t been entirely extracted from its psychopathic matrix, and since this balance between psychopathy and romance is most poised in Ted’s character, he’s often drawn into illicit networks as he tries to legitimise his connection to Mary. On his road trip down to Miami, he’s mistaken for a gay cruiser at a rest stop, and then mistakenly apprehended for a dead body that a hitchhiking serial killer leaves in his car, leading a pair of officers to assume that he’s recapitulated the Florida flight of Ted Bundy, whose name he shares. In a great comic set piece, he responds fairly nonchalantly to the police interrogation, assuming he’s in trouble for picking up a hitchhiker, rather than for the body the hitchhiker left in his car. Comedy aside, however, this weird fusion of psychopathy and normality epitomises Ted’s presence in the film, which is never quite normalised or naturalised enough.
The result is a quasi-comic approach to the stalker as a cultural icon, or at least a discomforting crossover between stalker and romantic lead that forces all the characters to look awry at serial killing, either dimissing it bathetically or appropriating it for their own romantic agendas. Tucker tries to dispose of Pat by framing him as a criminal – a Washington serial killer in the vein of Ted Bundy – but it feels quaint, out of date, prompting Mary to insist that “I’m tired of talking about stalkers – let’s talk about you,” the pun on “let’s stalk” and “let’s talk” nevertheless evoking the film’s reflexive disinclination to put this fixation aside. It’s as if the action takes place at the very moment at which the revelation of Bundy started to wane, and his flight to Florida started to seep back into the texture of everyday sexual life.
No surprise, then, that Miami is front and centre here. In fact, few 90s comedies were so associated with a particular city as There’s Something About Mary – a pivotal scene even takes place at an exhibition dedicated to iconic Miami architecture. In part that’s because Miami is such a perfect nexus of 50s and 80s style, but what ramifies most here is the flatness of Miami – the ease of movement, the fluidity of space, the porosity of every apparent threshold. The Farrelly’s Miami is a novel surveillance economy, proto-digital in the fluidity with which people can move from place to place – and observe others doing the same. Rhode Island is pointedly framed as the Ocean State in the opening scenes, but Miami totally puts it to shame, with most scenes set right on the water in some evocative way (Pat first follows Mary to an aqua golf range). On top of that, Mary is the quintessential “girl who can hang” of the 90s – she likes golf, football, full-strength gear – and her restless movement opens up the city too.
Yet this fixation with mobility also produces a proportionate fixation on disabled characters, and characters with limited mobility. Pat dissuades Ted from pursuing her by telling him she’s in a wheelchair, while Tucker garners sympathy from adopting a disability that requires a hand brace. Mary’s brother has an intellectual disability, which comes with physical limitations, and even Mary’s flatmate Magda, who is otherwise able-bodied, never leaves her couch, apart from a single scene when it takes an accidental dose of speed to get her cleaning in a manic frenzy. This focus on disabled bodies is even starker against the film’s peripetatic narrative – feels like the Farrellys are afraid that the endpoint of all this movement is a profoundly sedentary and stagnant form of stalking: clicking, compiling, curating and watching from afar.
Beneath its endless movement, then, Mary seems to glimpse the central posture of future dating – debilitated, prone, in front of a computer. As if to forestall that future, the Farrellys end up granting agency to all of the characters who initially appear to be disabled – all through Mary, who spends her free time working with the intellectually disabled, and her work time as an orthopaedic surgeon. Last time Ted saw her, he was wheeled off to hospital, while Tucker deliberately broke his own back so that he could heal at her hands. Even Pat’s relationship to disability evolves and matures, while Magda’s dog takes on a second life after a body-crushing injury that sees it entirely encased in plaster, in one of the most enduring images of the film.
In the very process of forestalling the future, the Farrellys anticipate the evolution of online dating over the next decade, and the changing structures of feeling that accompanied it. The men go from discerning Mary’s interests, and tailoring their courtship to accommodate them, to watching each other watch her. The cringe comedy thus segues into (or pre-empts) one of the main traumas of online dating: watching other people flirting online, or (perhaps worse) imagining all the other people who might be flirting online. Finally, the men start to create profiles for themselves, as when Pat takes advantage of Magda’s mobile phone surveillance to craft a conversation that he knows will get a good reaction from Mary and her friends. In effect, we see the men checking out Mary’s profile, and producing profiles of their own, before digital dating profiles existed in any normal way – through everyday spaces and places.
In the end, then, the men fall in love with the act of following Mary – the stalking is the ineffable “something” of the title, the “something” that makes her appealing. Of course, this begs the question – should we finally see Ted as one of the stalkers, or as a new kind of romantic lead – which in turn begs a second question – should Ted end up with Mary, or not? The film remains artfully poised between those two possibilities, pairing Ted and Mary in the last scene, but with a preposterous sense of fantasy, given that Brett Favre turns up as one of the ex-boyfriends that Mary jettisons for Ted’s sake. Yet this hyper-fantasy isn’t quite stable either, since this is when Richman’s drummer is shot, leaving us in a surreal space that doesn’t really answer the question of stalking, but leaves it open as a question – a question that would be debated, experienced and reiterated over the decades of online dating this film pre-empts.