Good Dirty Fun

Me, Myself & Irene is life-affirming filth. Chicken Run is diabolically witty.

Me, Myself & Irene
Directed by Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly
20th Century Fox

Chicken Run
Directed by Peter Lord and Nick Park
DreamWorks SKG 

Mental-health advocates have claimed that Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s new Jim Carrey vehicle, Me, Myself & Irene, misrepresents schizophrenia and makes fun of mental illness. They’re right. Clinically speaking, the picture is claptrap, and it’s in the filthiest imaginable taste. Scenes feature a grown man sucking milk out of a mother’s breast, a kick-boxing black midget tongue-kissing a beautiful blonde, and a chicken sticking out of a handcuffed police officer’s rectum. The film is a disgusting piece of work; I still can’t believe how much I loved it.

OK, maybe I can. I also loved the Farrellys’ last movie, There’s Something About Mary (1998), as well as their seamlessly infantile debut, Dumb & Dumber (1994). This one isn’t in the same league, but it’s good and raunchy and somehow even healthful. It says it’s normal to have warring impulses—that our internal divisions make us human. It says the goal of a mature psyche is to integrate the extremes of our nature, not to suppress one element to the point of deforming everything else. It’s says it’s pretty funny seeing poultry sticking out of someone’s butt.

Anyway, what’s so objectionable about the id and the superego duking it out? That’s the basis of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and its slapstick offspring The Nutty Professor (1963). This time, the protagonist is Charlie (Carrey), an earnest, conventionally masculine state trooper on the coast of Rhode Island who suffers a sexual trauma at the hands of his wife. (She leaves him for the aforementioned kick-boxing black midget, who’s also head of the New England chapter of MENSA.) Left to care for three unmistakably African-American sons (with inner-city diction and MENSA-level IQs), Charlie represses his anger and messy emotions and, as the years pass, becomes so amiable and wilting that everyone takes advantage of him—neighbors, sundry lawbreakers, small girls with jump-ropes.

After 20 minutes or so watching Charlie get walked all over, we’re ready for Mr. Hyde to show up and start busting heads. He turns out to have a name—Hank—and he’s lewd and belligerent and speaks in the plangent rasp of Clint Eastwood (whose Dirty Harry Carrey played opposite in The Dead Pool [1988]). What gives the Farrellys’ vision some un-Dirty Harryish complexity is that Hank is as much of a screw-up as Charlie: He often picks fights with people who beat the crap out of him. When he wakes up in pain he’s Charlie again, wondering who the hell just broke his nose.

Relieved of active duty by his worried captain (Robert Forster, underused), Charlie/Hank must escort a woman named Irene (Renée Zellweger) to upstate New York on what turns out to be a trumped-up hit-and-run charge. Irene, it seems, knows too much about a real-estate scam, and her ex-boyfriend and a crooked cop (Chris Cooper) plan to buy her silence with a bullet. The plot is rather perfunctory (the script was written a decade ago and has been spruced-up for Carrey), and the Farrellys seem so bored with the bang-bang stuff that they have their drawling Texas narrator—similar to, but not as witty as, the guy in The BigLebowski (1998)—summarize scenes that they don’t feel like dramatizing.

But the shambling structure doesn’t hurt the picture too much. Me,Myself & Irene is a two-for-the-road movie turned hilariously into a threesome. Hank fervently tries to sleep with Irene, while Charlie, the lovelorn loser, keeps his distance. Irene likes Charlie and, of course, loathes Hank, but guess who she’d rather have around when the bad guys get the drop? Hank pretends to be Charlie to get into Irene’s pants, then claims that her subsequent outrage isn’t fair: “Just this once try to look at it from my side,” he argues. “I was horny.” Zellweger’s smudgy, rumpled sexiness brings Carrey down a notch and humanizes him, but he’s our most vivacious physical comedian: When he sidles into a motel room as Hank-pretending-to-be-Charlie, his glittering eyes give the game away. He’s maniacally lit-up.

The Farrellys have cornered the market on comedies that make audiences scream louder than at splattery horror flicks, but for all their gross-out set pieces (dead-animal jokes, wanker jokes, poop jokes), their work has a loving, inclusive spirit. As usual, they’ve cast people with physical disabilities—more than you’ve ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood film. At first, these folks seem to be the butt of the gags; then they turn the tables on their “normal” oppressors. As it turns out, there’s no such thing as normal: Everyone’s part of the same freaky family—from an albino called Whitey (Michael Bowman) to Charlie’s three huge African-American “sons” (Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee, and Jerod Mixon), who are funny enough to get a movie of their own. Over the closing credits, the Farrellys affix names to all the extras, many of them old Rhode Island friends and neighbors. They have real family values.

John Waters has made the distinction between “good bad taste” and “bad bad taste,” and the Farrellys belong in the former camp: They’re national treasures. But a recent column by George F. Will attacks movies like There’s Something About Mary, American Pie (1999), and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) for being products of the “new incivility.” I have no problem with the notion of a new incivility, but I don’t think it can be traced to a preference for gross-out comedies, which seem infinitely more benign and humanistic than the smirky sex romps of yore. After recounting some gags out of context, Will goes on to complain about poor service in restaurants, people yapping on cell phones, and other impediments to the good (Tory) life. He concludes:

A version of that idea invests gross-out movies with an aura of seriousness, even social benefaction: Such movies supposedly enlarge liberty by being “iconoclastic” toward “taboos.” Hence this unified field theory of today’s vulgarians: Infantilism, meaning life lived in subordination to elemental and unedited appetites, increases rapidly when prosperity puts technological sophistication at the service of a society decreasingly sophisticated about other matters, such as manners and why they matter.

But what are the taboos being flouted in the sequences Will mentions, and to what end? The joke in American Pie centers on a virgin lad who has been told by a friend what sex feels like, decides to try it out on a freshly baked apple pie, and is discovered by his dad—who then attempts, with nervous liberal heartiness, to bond with his son by confessing his own erotic mishaps. The hero of There’s Something About Mary is spied through a bathroom window by his beautiful date and her mom, who mistakenly think he’s masturbating. Deeply flustered and in a panic to show them he isn’t, he pulls his zipper through his testes. A variation on that bit is repeated later. The adolescent, now grown up, is advised by a pal that in order to counter the embarrassing problem of overeagerness (physiological and psychological) on a date, he ought to masturbate first. He does—but, of course, his date shows up early, and in his haste he loses track of his …

Are these Molière gags? Hardly. But they’re not gratuitous, either, and they don’t preach infantilism. They spring from male sexual anxiety and the terror of exposure: They’re worst-case scenarios of embarrassment. Any boy who has ever gone through adolescence with his textbooks held strategically in front of his lap will find them consoling, and any woman who has wondered about the sources of male shame will find them revelatory. They’re good bad taste, whereas Will’s is bad good taste—the taste that oppresses.

It has become such a cliché to describe a certain kind of middle-class Englishwoman as a clucking hen that when the clucking hens in Chicken Run open their beaks and out come the voices of middle-class Englishwomen—well, it feels so right you’ll want to cock-a-doodle-doo. The farm on which the hens live is like a German prisoner-of-war camp, and when their egg output drops, they’re snatched away and roasted. The idea of remounting a Nazi prison-break movie (cf, The Great Escape [1963]) with bourgeois, complacent female poultry might not seem so promising—and this is a grim setting for a kiddie movie. But this first feature by Nick Park and Peter Lord, the team that brought you Wallace and Gromit, is a diabolically witty piece of work, a haymaker. Each chicken is a miracle of characterization, and the tour-de-force sequence—in which the heroine and the Yank hero (Mel Gibson, never funnier) fight to stay in one piece in a pie-making machine with more wheels, cogs, and pulleys than Rube Goldberg’s worst nightmare—surpasses Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) for sheer kinetic marvelousness. Two wise-ass mice call the hen’s pathetic attempts to fly “poultry in motion,” but the movie is poetry in motion: It’s eggsquisite.