I have no sense of humor. Or, at least, that’s what I often claim. I spend a lot of time thinking about what texts—be they movies, books, or beer commercials—really mean, and there’s no shortage of jokes with awful implications. Since comedy frequently depends on violating social norms or playing with apparent taboos, it can also be reductive, reactionary, or just plain lazy, and I’m easily frustrated by humor that strikes me as any (or all) of these things. Needless to say, I know what it feels like to be one of the few people in a movie theater who isn’t laughing.
All of which makes me an unlikely fan of Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s 1994 debut, Dumb and Dumber.
Dumb and Dumber is—I will loudly insist with little prompting—not a dumb movie at all, but rather a smart movie about dumb people. The film, starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as dopey buddies Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne, and featuring gags about frozen boogers, bottles full of urine, and the misuse of laxatives, turns a quarter century old this year, and it still makes me laugh. It’s tough to articulate exactly why: humor so frequently derives from vagaries of delivery and timing, and everyone knows that explaining a joke is the best way to ruin it.
Indeed, when I sat down to rewatch Dumb and Dumber recently with a notepad and pen, I felt a little goofy doing so, and my notes mostly consisted of an only-marginally helpful inventory of favorite gags. However, I will say this: it was a long list. It’s a film so dense with jokes that it rewards multiple viewings.
I will admit, though, that I’m ambivalent about the film’s legacy. The Farrelly brothers are closely associated with gross-out set pieces, and when Something About Mary became a critical and commercial smash in 1998, studios gained confidence—not just in R-rated comedies, but, more specifically, in the mass appeal of the types of gags once associated with John Waters’ fringiest works. It’s nice to think that the mainstream popularity of such humor has allowed artists more freedom to do their thing, but that notion is at best only part of the story.
Look: humor involving bodily fluids and functions can be hilarious. But it can also be pointless and deeply unfunny, both of which certainly apply to some of the films that followed in the wake of the Farrellys’ success. What’s more, it’s not difficult to link the rise of no-holds-barred comedy over the last 25 years to broader social trends involving a coarsening and lack of maturity in our public discourse. (I told you I had no sense of humor). It seems almost quaint now that some critics were irritated and squicked out by Dumb and Dumber‘s grossest gags. We’re used to encountering far bluer material on a regular basis by now. We’ve become inured to the bawdy and rude, but that doesn’t just mean we’ve lightened up—it’s also meant we’ve lost track at times of which situations demand seriousness, reverence, or sensitivity—something other than a punchline. Humor can be an amazing tool for critique as well as a respite from a difficult world, but not every political or social issue is answerable by a meme. There is still something to be said for restraint.
So, while I will certainly defend Dumb and Dumber, I’ll also contend thatits funniest bits are often its simplest, such as the moment when Lloyd advises Harry to throw some salt over his shoulder to avoid bad luck, prompting Lloyd to toss the whole shaker over his shoulder in the midst of a crowded diner. The film’s success seems to have less to do with envelope-pushing scatological gags than with the organic ways in which it wrings every possible laugh out of each and every scene.
The action kicks off when bowl-cut-wearing limo driver Lloyd wildly misperceives his interaction with one of his customers, Mary Swanson (Lauren Holly), developing a crush on her and deciding to drive cross-country to return the briefcase that she’s left at the airport. Jeff Daniels’ fuzzy-haired dog groomer Harry tags along, providing the duo’s iconic set of wheels: a van outfitted to look like one of his canine customers. In setting out on their misguided quest, Harry and Lloyd end up embroiled in a very grown-up kidnapping and extortion plot involving Mary’s husband. The pleasure in seeing this pair of fools loosed upon the complicated world of adults comes from the fact that Carrey, Daniels, and the rest of the cast play their parts with utter conviction. Nobody winks.
It’s essential that Carrey and Daniels are both strong actors capable of balancing deft comedic timing with a genuine commitment to their roles. 1994 was famously Carrey’s year of dominance at the box office, with The Mask and Ace Venturarounding out a trifecta of massive hits. But while Carrey’s performance in Dumb and Dumber taps into some of the same antic, rubber-faced energy as his other 1994 roles, he also gives Lloyd something of a dark edge. Early in the film, his wet-eyed monologue about being “sick and tired of having to eke [his] way through life” has a sincerity so intense that it gets a laugh—but a startled one. Carrey’s turn as Lloyd might not be as different as it initially appears from his later dramatic work in films like The Truman Show. Similarly, Daniels, known mainly for his dramatic work both before and since this film, is funny because he plays his part so earnestly. Harry’s declaration that Lloyd has “totally [redeemed himself]” from previous mistakes by swapping the van for a sputtering moped is hysterical because he shouts it with incredible assurance.
It’s also a joy that Dumb and Dumber makes no pretense of trying to teach us anything. Harry and Lloyd are fools, but not in the same way that Forrest Gump, another of 1994’s best known characters, is a fool. There are intended to be kernels of unexpected wisdom in Forrest’s park bench epigrams, and he lives an extraordinary life, managing to impact 20th century culture in countless ways. Harry and Lloyd, meanwhile, don’t say or do anything profound, even if they do manage to accidentally elude the bad guys throughout the film. And in contrast to other 90s comedies which feature underachieving, immature men as their protagonists (like Billy Madison), Dumb and Dumber doesn’t reward its characters with financial success or allow either of them to get the girl. Thankfully, it also never suggests that Harry and Lloyd are role models. Because they aren’t. They’re idiots.
The film’s happy ending is this: Harry and Lloyd walking down a highway, broke and lacking in prospects, playing tag and arguing about the rules of the game (“You can’t triple stamp a double stamp!”). They don’t have much, but they have each other. While Dumb and Dumber doesn’t seek to impart any lessons on its audience, it does depict, in its own absurd way, the sweetness of having a best friend willing to share in your adventures, interests, and ambitions (even when those ambitions include a dream of opening a pet store that specializes in worms.)
Maybe it’s appropriate, then, that my affection for Dumb and Dumber is only partly based on everything I just said about clever humor and committed performances. In the ‘90s, my brother had a treasured VHS copy of the film that was in constant rotation. We’ve always been close, and when we were growing up, Dumb and Dumber became part of the fabric of our shared sibling universe. Quotes from the movie still pepper our conversations. The scenes of Harry and Lloyd out on the open road, with songs like “Crash” by The Primitives or “Where I Find My Heaven” by the Gigolo Aunts on the soundtrack, remind me of when my brother got his first car and we would go for drives with only a vague objective in mind. “We’re really doing it though, aren’t we buddy?” Lloyd says to Harry when they first hit the road to Aspen; I remember quoting the scene to my brother one morning when, in our early 20s, we were setting out on a day trip to New York City. A while ago I found a note my brother had written me that contained no actual information; it was just a verbatim copy of the note that Lloyd and Harry leave for the “Gas Man” near the beginning of the film. I don’t remember why he wrote the note, but I still have it, because it makes me smile.
Movies aren’t just movies. Or at least, not always. They can remind us of people and places, and of our own past selves. I love the scene where Lloyd comes puttering up on that moped because it always makes my dad chortle. And I’m guessing that one reason he watches that bit most every time it pops up on cable is because his kids once made him watch Dumb and Dumber over and over again, until it became part of the fabric of his relationship with us. I suppose that loving a film because of what it reminds us of means failing in some way to be objective about that film as art, but I’m not sure that anyone can be wholly objective about art anyway, and there’s something wonderful about the way other people’s creative work can become so interwoven with our own lives.
A few of you may have just blanched at the appearance of the word “art” in an essay about Dumb and Dumber, and trust me, I get it: this is a movie where someone duct tapes a parakeet’s head back on. But perhaps we humorless cinephiles devalue comedy too much. In the making-of featurette, Daniels has this to say: “The last time I looked, the Greeks were holding up two masks, and comedy should be on an equal level with drama. It really should. And whether you’re sittin’ on a toilet or, you know, doing Shakespeare, funny is funny.” I can’t help but agree. After all, great comedy only looks effortless; anyone who has witnessed an unfunny pratfall knows that it takes instinct and skill to do it right. And we all need a good laugh—sometimes desperately so. Hence, 25 years on, many of us still love Dumb and Dumber.
To borrow a lyric from the Gigolo Aunts song: “the sacred moments of silliness/Are where I find my heaven.”