There’s Something About Mary turns 20 years old on July 15, 2018 and while it’s been two decades since “hair gel” became a gross punchline, the Farrelly Brothers film has mostly managed to age well, especially for the dating perils modern-day women face every day.
When There’s Something About Mary was released in 1998, I was in middle school, unable to see it in theaters without adult supervision (and this isn’t really a movie a teenager wants to see with a parent or guardian). I can recall my mother seeing it, raving about it even, and then completely recapping the movie for me in detailed minute-to-minute precision. It has a basic plot (boy meets girl, boy gets dick stuck in zipper, boy tries to win girl back), but with almost Hitchcockian (emphasis on cock) twists and turns that make it more than a bawdy comedy (Dom is Woogie! Tucker isn’t British! Mary dated Brett Favre!).
When I finally did watch it as an adult, it quickly became one of my favorite films, something that I recently talked about on the Awards Daily Water Cooler podcast. I loved it because there’s never a dull moment in terms of comedy, with each scene generating a laugh, and while I’ve previously viewed it as the ultimate male romantic comedy, since it’s from the point of view of Ben Stiller’s Ted Stroehmann pursuing his high school crush Mary (Cameron Diaz), rewatching it in the post-#MeToo world highlights that this film is in fact women’s ultimate romantic comedy, saying so much about what it’s like to be a single woman and dating, while undoing pop culture stereotypes.
In most romantic comedies, it’s the woman at the center of the story that does the pining (think: Sleepless in Seattle, My Best Friend’s Wedding, While You Were Sleeping). Usually she is clumsy (Never Been Kissed, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Two Weeks’ Notice) and works in publishing (Bridget Jones’ Diary, 13 Going on 30, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and lives in New York (When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, 27 Dresses). There’s Something About Mary completely flips these tropes by putting a male at the center of the pining (in this case Stiller), who works in publishing (he’s a writer) and is clumsy (I still cringe every time he gets the fish hook stuck in his mouth). Meanwhile, Mary is an orthopedic surgeon who loves her life in Miami and won’t jeopardize her relationship with her mentally challenged brother Warren (W. Earl Brown) for someone who doesn’t support her or her family. (Here’s where the film doesn’t age well: W. Earl Brown would probably be ridiculed today on Twitter for this performance.)
In a world of Sandra Bullock characters, who fantasize about being engaged to bushy-browed strangers on a train, we should all want to be a Mary.
Mary is the girl of Stiller’s dreams, but she’s also what every single woman strives to be.
And yet there’s also a darkness to Mary’s story that speaks to what women go through in romance, revealing truths relevant to modern dating, even in 2018.
Following college, Mary Jensen is forced to change her last name to Matthews after an encounter with a stalker (who ends up being Ted’s adult best friend Dom “Woogie” Woganowski, played by Chris Elliott). But that’s just the tip of the crazy, as Mary has a whole slew of men obsessed with her, including Tucker (Lee Evans), previously known as Norm, her pizza delivery guy, who adjusts his whole surfer-dude persona to assume the role of a British architect in order to win her. Private investigator Pat Healy (Matt Dillon), whom Ted hires to find out what happened to his high school crush, even gives up his P.I. business in Rhode Island (to work for “San Francisco treat” Rice-A-Roni—they’re changing their image!) and moves down to Florida to try to get with Mary.
These men are consumed by Mary and how she reflects achieving a more perfect version of themselves. And yet, in a gender-swapped version of this romantic comedy, it feels unrealistic for a group of women to be this obsessed with one man (statistics show that 1 in 6 women has been stalked in their lifetime compared to 1 in 19 men) and to have the audacity to take it out on the man.
“If I may, I have a proposal,” says Pat Healy in one of the final scenes of the film. “I say none of us leaves this room until our young Mary here stops jerking us around and decides once and for all who she really wants.”
In recent years, the “incel” movement has become a household term, with incidents like April’s van attack in Toronto stemming from an alleged perpetrator who described himself as “involuntarily celibate.” If Mary would have been released in 2018, critics surely would have explored similarities between her “stalkers” and the rise of the incel movement. They all feel they deserve her love in some aspect, but never once consider her feelings.
“I’m no better than any of these guys,” says Ted. “None of them love you really. They’re just fixated on you because how you make them feel about themselves. That’s not real love. I don’t know what that is.”
Even the ending of the comedy is a stark reminder of men being driven by violence when it comes to getting what they want. In the final moments of the film, Mary’s neighbor pulls out a shotgun and aims for Ted, admitting to Magda that he was only boning her to get to Mary. He ends up missing and hitting Jonathan Richman, the singer/songwriter narrating events of the film. In 1998, this was a darkly comic ending; in 2018, it’s darkly realistic.
The comedy of There’s Something About Mary is still funny, just as it was 20 years ago, but in 2018, it’s less gross-out hilarious, more meaningfully macabre when it comes to its true depictions of interaction between men and women. I laugh at the movie because it’s ridiculous, but also that it so closely relates to reality that it hurts. I wish Mary was just fucking with us, but she’s not.