After striking gold in 1998 with There’s Something About Mary, Peter and Bobby Farrelly used their newfound clout to experiment with a peculiar formula. While their previous comedies were spirited explorations of hapless stupidity (Dumb and Dumber, 1994), hapless sleaze (Kingpin, 1996), or both (Mary), their three films since show an obsession with physical and mental handicaps, of sorts—usually acted out by big name movie stars.
There’s Jim Carrey’s split-personality cop in Me, Myself and Irene (2000) and Gwyneth Paltrow’s obese woman courted by Jack Black in Shallow Hal (2001). In these films, topics like mental illness and obesity maximized the Farrellys’ mixture of bad taste and sincerity. Me, Myself and Irene had its moments, thanks to one of Carrey’s most elaborately elastic performances, but Shallow Hal was flat: outrageous and sorta “nice” in parts, but not particularly funny.
But something goes right with the new film, Stuck on You. Here the slapstick and sentimentality mix agreeably, and one rarely undermines the other. Both aspects are convincingly built into the film, not tacked on. It helps that conjoined twins Bob (Matt Damon) and Walt (Greg Kinnear) are earnest and good-hearted; the movie is rooted in their affection for one another, rather than a boorish guy turning into a hero. Rather, tension comes when Walt announces that he wants to be a Hollywood actor, even though Bob has severe stagefright. The brothers move from Martha’s Vineyard (where they are the fastest burger cooks in town) to Los Angeles.
It’s around this point—half an hour in and no bodily fluids—that you realize this isn’t a Farrelly brothers’ gross-out comedy. Save for a little vulgarity, it’s almost family-appropriate. This leaves the Farrellys’ lack of verbal cunning in full view—you’re not laughing so hard that you don’t notice how many times one character call another a “dumb shit,” and that it’s never funny. But if Stuck on You is not witty, it’s consistently amusing: When Walt and Bob get to Hollywood, they’re hired by Cher (playing herself), to sink a TV series she wants to ditch.
As they don’t know about her scheme, Walt (and Bob, who warms to script-repairing) takes on the project in full seriousness. They also pal around with ditzy (but utterly accepting) wannabe actress April (played cheerily by Eva Mendes) and May (Wen Yann Shih), Bob’s internet girlfriend who is at first unaware of Bob’s other half.
That’s perhaps one or two subplots too many. The Farrellys still have no sense of pacing; their comedies are consistently flabby and overlong. There’s no reason for any of them to circle the two-hour mark. There are a lot of good laughs here, but too much space between them; you get the feeling that one more cut of this film (or draft of the screenplay) could really kill. I smiled a lot through this one, but I confess Dumb and Dumber (though also overlong) made me laugh more. There aren’t any classically hilarious sequences here, and the story doesn’t unfold so much as tumble out in a pile. Agents, girlfriends, deception and physical difficulties are all covered haphazardly. There are a few inspired set pieces, such as a bar fight and a musical number, and a lot of meandering in between.
Draggy as its comedy can be, Stuck on You‘s humanity is always sprightly and engaging. The last section of the film, in which the brothers must make an important decision about their future, is especially effective, as its slapstick comes from characters and situations, not a desire to have movie stars trip and fall down. The Farrellys aren’t exactly expert comedy marksmen, but Stuck on You cements their treatment of the differently abled as consistently fine, never giving in to sanctimony.
Somehow the film has still been criticized as syrupy. Think of other squishy Hollywood productions where famous actors take showy “disability” roles to win affection from either audiences or Oscar voters, sometimes both. There are no speeches in Stuck on You followed by slow-building standing ovations, nor is there a single moment where an entire town realizes how great these guys are—possibly because they aren’t really great guys, just good ones.
The Farrellys have put more faith in their characters here than, perhaps, in any of their previous films. And they picked the right actors for it: Damon and Kinnear have been up for awards, but it’s this kind of tricky work—light but potentially mawkish—that can become a proving ground for actors. Bob and Walt are believable characters in a genial comedy, which is a lot more honorable than Oscar bait.