Silver Screen: Dumb and Dumber To ***
It’s nearly impossible to make a satisfying sequel to a classic: The element of surprise is gone, expectations are elevated, et cetera. But it might be even tougher to make a sequel to an almost-classic, a good movie rendered smoother and sparklier by the gloss of nostalgia.
I do happen to be of the opinion that the Farrelly brothers’ original Dumb and Dumber is a comedy classic, or at least a reasonable facsimile of one. At the very least it’s an endlessly quotable showcase for one of the most talented comic actors of his day operating at the height of his powers. (No, not Jeff Daniels.) But as much as I’m compelled to yell “Samsonite! I was way off!” when I finally recall a forgotten name or respond “So you’re telling me there’s a chance...” when someone gives terrible odds, I have to concede the first movie has its share of groaners and overburdened grossouts.
When you think back on Dumb and Dumber now, you’re more likely to recall those favorite lines or the image of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels strolling into the Stanley Hotel wearing candy-colored tuxedos rather than, say, the third minute of a protracted diarrhea gag.
The brilliantly titled Dumb and Dumber To had something of an impossible task, then. Having plumbed the shallows of human stupidity twenty years ago, Peter and Bobby Farrelly must present an equally enthusiastic ode to idiocy to a devoted fanbase two decades removed from their adolescence, which remains the perfect vantage point for viewing this paean to peons. The result is a funnier-than-average comedy that struggles under the weight of its loopy legacy.
Costars Daniels and Carrey resisted returning for a sequel for several years, so it’s tough to imagine what about this script compelled them to make a comeback. The story is as uninspired as possible, as the Farrellys, working with three Starbucks’ worth of screenwriters, take the Weekend at Bernie’s II approach (known to younger filmgoers as The Hangover II Gambit, or the Ghostbusters II Stratagem): Just repeat the same thing with different dialogue.
And so it is that Harry (Daniels) and Lloyd (Carrey) wind up on a cross-country trip to deliver a package whose contents remain mysterious to them. Along the way they’re entangled in a financial scheme hatched by a cheating golddigger who hires a murderer to rub out the dimwitted duo. This time around they’re searching for sweet airhead Penny (Rachel Melvin), Harry’s long-lost daughter, who may be able to provide him with the kidney he needs for a transplant. Her adoptive father Doctor Pinchelow (Steve Tom) entrusts them with a box containing his world-changing invention, which they must give to Penny at a scientific conference. The doctor’s scheming second wife (Laurie Holden) has other ideas and conscripts her dirtbag boyfriend (Rob Riggle) to intercept the package.
It’s a shame the plot of the movie is so unambitious and repetitive, but the disappointing framework of the movie doesn’t necessarily hinder the individual jokes and episodic adventures. Carrey may now favor the polar extremes of cartoonish kiddie roles and darker, more dramatic stuff, but he slips back into his trademark comic persona with uncanny grace. He spins middling gags into comedy gold with his Midas-like delivery, teasing out extra laughter from decent jokes with sublimely bizarre flourishes and layering his physical performance with both big gestures and subtle tics. Whatever he’s doing at a given moment— frantically slapping a doorbell at top speed, spontaneously drumming his fists on the hood of a car containing an enraged attack dog— he’s killing it. As with the original, Daniels does a solid job simply by hanging on for the ride and finding the right rhythm to play a sort-of-straight man to match Carrey’s manic intensity.
It’s wonderful to see Carrey back in action, so it’s also a bit of bummer to see this unrenewable natural resource tapped for a film that fails to equal his own inventiveness. Far too often the Farrellys retreat to the benign safety of callbacks to the original film. A cameo appearance from the misfiring breathspray or the tricked-out dogmobile (The Shaggin’ Wagon) is all well and good, but too often the in-jokes are stretched past the breaking point, as though the mere appearance of the blind kid from the first movie merits a plodding running gag about his new menagerie of rare birds. The memorable kung fu fantasy sequence is repeated almost verbatim, with the grossout punchline cranked up a notch (or down, depending on your view).
That’s not to say novelty renders the other scenes necessarily better, as the most tiresome tangent involves a sexual encounter with a nursing-home patient. It’s but one of several examples of the sequel’s willingness to stoop to mean-spirited humor, when the original succeeded in part because these guys are too stupid to be anything but good-natured.
In its best moments, Dumb and Dumber To reminds us that Jim Carrey always deserved to be a star. Perhaps it also validates his choice to experiment with more offbeat projects like I Love You Phillip Morris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (even if every now and again the result is The Number Twenty-three). Carrey still shines at peak wattage, but the movie itself is sadly reminiscent of an aging band that play covers of old hits that sounded better on the record anyway.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.