François Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses ends with a scene that, to this writer’s eyes, stands as one of the emotionally wrenching notes of the great filmmaker’s career. After a narrative of manipulation, treachery and Machiavellian scheming in the name of pursuing his object of desire, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) finally unites with Christine (Claude Jade). As they sit on a park bench, a stranger approaches them and impulsively delivers a lengthy monologue declaring his all-consuming love for Christine, his voyeuristic obsession and his desperation to make her reciprocate his feelings. Finally, Christine simply declares “he’s crazy,” and Antoine concurs: “yes, he is.” But what he realizes at this moment is that from an outside perspective, Antoine’s idealization of Christine is no more sane, that the many misjudgments and misadventures he endured in the name of pursuing her would, to an outside perspective, appear just as illogical, and it is only narcissism that enables him to justify his misdeeds to himself.
The Farrelly Brothers’ There’s Something About Mary feels like a feature-length riff on these ideas, with a similar streak of bitter irony running through its protagonist’s romantic misadventures. Despite only having gone one on a single, ill-fated date in high school, a now thirty-something Ted (Ben Stiller) has become consumed by an overwhelming obsession over Mary (Cameron Diaz), to the extent that he’s unable to establish a relationship with a real, flesh-and-blood woman. And, as it soon becomes clear, Ted’s fascination also renders him unable to see Mary as a real person, rather than an impossibly idealized object of desire.
“I know it was brief, but it was definitely love. I mean, crushes don’t last for 13 years, right?” That is Ted’s lament, but his naivety of his romanticism is clear to everybody around him. While recounting the story of a high school fling for the countless time, Ted’s psychiatrist sneaks out to grab a sandwich. After being hired to track Mary down, Matt Dillon’s crooked Private Detective, Pat Healy, casually remarks to a colleague, “some guy gave me a couple of bucks to track down his high school girlfriend.” Stalker, huh?” is the nonchalant reply, as if Ted’s obsession is commonplace. Indeed, it’s crucial to the narrative that Ted isn’t so different from the average protagonist or a Hollywood romantic hero — the Farrellys merely highlight the toxic undertones of the behaviour that tends to get sugar-coated.
But Ted is merely one obsessive amongst a tapestry of similarly limited perspectives. The Farrellys’ brilliant plotting grants roughly equal weight to both Patrick and Ted’s respective pursuits of Mary, and then, later, Woogie and Tucker. What’s crucial is that each potential suitor conceives of themselves as the only one with a true emotional connection and moral imperative; the others are mere opportunists, and hence their manipulation techniques are toxic, rather than justifiable.
In a lesser comedy, Ted would be the good guy pitted against Pat Healy’s opportunistic, manipulative villain, but the Farrellys frame all three of Mary’s potential suitors as being essentially in the same boat: they idealize Mary not only because of her external beauty, but also out of a base idea of masculine competition. For them, Mary represents an unattainable ideal, an obscure object of desire who will somehow make everything wrong about their lives right and justify all the injustices they’ve suffered at the hands of the fairer sex.
If Diaz’s Mary remains a cipher, it’s because none of her potential suitors view her as anything more than projections of their own fantasies, desires and romantic hang-ups. Ted had literally 20 years to idealize Mary into an impossibly heightened portrait of loveliness. For Patrick, she simply stands as a vague composite of every pretty girl who wouldn’t give him the time of day. Thus, she becomes a goal to be pursued obsessively. “It was supposed to be my turn this time,” Healy says in a late scene. “Why can I never get a girl like Mary?,” Healy muses at one point, and Ted responds “just because you didn’t get her, you didn’t have to blow us both out of the water.”
As far as manic comic neuroticism goes, this is probably the best of its kind since Jerry Lewis’ Cracking Up, and there’s something of Lewis’ anxious adolescent mess in Stiller’s portrayal of Ted. These men are essentially scared adolescents, believing that they’re so below Mary that falsifying their personas is the only way they can gain her affection. Ted excessively spies on Mary, collecting information about her current life, then shows up in Florida and orchestrates what he pretends to be a chance occurrence; Healy affects a false career, backstory and line of interests to match Mary’s described vision of an ideal man; Tucker pretends to have a disability and a senior architectural position simply to get close to Mary after he becomes enamoured by her while delivering a pizza to her house. Each one is, of course, too blinded by their own insecurities to consider the possibility that she might like them for their own personalities. At any rate, emotional honesty would open them up to the risk of rejection. During the climax, Mary asks Ted outright: “What were you trying to do? Trick me into feeling something for you?”
As the men gradually reveal each other’s secrets and uncover their true motivations, their behaviour grows increasingly competitive and hysterical. Mary thus becomes positioned as a prize to be owned to prove one’s masculine prowess. The notion of mutual affection and understanding becomes forgotten to them. It’s vital to the film’s dynamic that none of the characters seem to have any real idea of what life with Mary would actually be like, because they are incapable of perceiving her as a goal to be achieved. What begins as a seemingly lightweight romantic comedy gradually expands into a surprisingly sophisticated exploration of romantic obsession and self-delusion.
James Slaymaker (@jmslaymaker) is a filmmaker and freelance journalist from Dorset, UK. His writing has been featured in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Film International, Little White Lies, Sound on Sight, Popmatters, Alternate Takes, Bright Lights Film Journal, College Humour, The Vulgar Cinema and McSweeney’s, among others. He’s also contributed a chapter to the upcoming book ‘Hard to Get: The Films and Female Characters of Howard Hawks.’ His first book, ‘Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann,’ is due for publication early next year.