The Brothers Farrelly and Coen

By Vivaan Shah

I think the reason I love the movies is primarily due to The Farrelly Brothers. They are a director brother duo who have made films like Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself and Irene, and There’s Something about Mary. They were really the first guys who made me realize what it is that a director does, and how you can tell apart a particular director's work just by the way the film looks. Also what distinguished their movies from a child's point of view in the 90s is that their two collaborations with Jim Carrey had him in short hair as opposed to his luxurious tresses in other films from the period. I even tried to imitate what Harlan Williams' state trooper refers to as a 'pumpkin pie haircut' in Dumb and Dumber and his officious crew cut from Me, Myself and Irene.

I fell in love with their movies at a very young age. Each of their films had a particular quality which you could spot from a mile away. Every frame reeked of them, each cloth of costume, each set or location, each piece of music that played, each actor, even the peripheral characters (that was also when I learnt what a stock company of actors is). Their work cannot really be described accurately. History has given them the tag of the ‘Fathers of Gross out Comedy’ but they are so much more than that. They are humorists, tragedians, pathos suppliers, and smile mongers. And as a kid when I watched their films I sometimes wished I could inhabit the landscape of their movies. Live in their worlds. 

Even today I honestly feel that if anyone is in a bad mood and has had a rough day try putting on a Farrelly Brothers movie and it will light you up like a spark on a rocket. They are considered low-brow, I don’t think too many people have written about them, or even thought about them seriously. Certain critics like Kent Jones, David Eddelstein, Walter Chaw, Roger Ebert, and Michael Atkinson and others have detected their particular strain of surrealism and have hailed them as pioneers of the sight gag and some have even called them the last great humanists. And even amongst the pantheon of auteurs of the modern cinema whom I revere such as Scorsese for his hyper sensitivity, The Coen Brothers for their Beckettian laconicism, Spike Lee for his rage, Oliver Stone for his psychedelics, Tarantino for his tentacles, Wes Anderson for his melancholy, the Farrelly Brothers still stand out for me as the friends-- the next door neighbours, the incarnation of the middle aged manchild, the buddies you grew up with and who most people grow out of. 

The film historian and critic Dave Kehr said an interesting thing in his review of Ben Stiller's The Cable Guy, which delineated the difference between the Farrelly school of humour and the Judd Apatow school of humour: 'Like Jim Carey's career, comedy itself has taken a rather drastic turn since the 90s. The joke likes not so much in Carreyesque abstractions and outrageous behaviour but instead in a balloon popping under reaction to preposterous events, it's an approach exemplified by Seth Rogen's deflating asides in the Green Hornet.' This may help explain why most comedies today have primarily verbal gags, and don't have the kind of crazy behavioural stuff guys like Jim Carrey, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Ben Stiller and Jack Black used to do. These guys came from a tradition of Chaplin, Keaton, W.C Fields, Harold Lloyd and Fatty Arbuckle and in my opinion are infinitely braver than today's comedians. 

Peter Farrelly has just made a film called 'Green Book', on his own because his brother Bobby needed a bit of a sabbatical. Unlike the Coens they aren't particularly departmentalised so it's difficult to tell which brother was responsible for what. Although the Coens don't claim to be departmentalised one gets the sense that Ethan is more a man of letters and Joel is more a man of images. The Coens too have recently made a new film, which is not without its share of Farrellyesque slapstick and disability. I repeatedly bring up the Coens because there is a stylistic kinship between them and the Farrellys. They too aren't afraid to go almost scatalogical--on reading Ethan's book of short stories 'Gates of Eden', I was struck by how dirty he could get: which was amazing. The uneasy marriage of toilet humour and violence has always for me been a thing of immense beauty and something to aspire to. 

The Farrellys have said that they are the anti-Coens (although they love their work and are often mistaken for them, a lot of people come up to them on the street and say they loved Fargo), that their work is not to be interpreted but experienced. The Big Lebowksi and Kingpin could be seen as 90s companion pieces about the Bowling community. Both films explore the almost anthropological aspects of Bowling as a sub-culture. Me, Myself & Irene (which is my personal favourite movie of all time) and Fargo are both a day in the life of a state trooper. Dumb and Dumber and Raising Arizona both have a touching affection for imbeciles, and There's Something about Mary is definitely their Barton Fink, where a nebbish protagonist is plunged into nightmarish circumstances. Shallow Hal and The Man who wasn't there are both studies in dislocation, and Stuck on you (their most moving film) and A serious man are both studies in brotherhood. The Heartbreak Kid and Inside Llewyn Davies are both meditations on failure-- personal and professional-- romantic and occupational. In the immortal words of Vince McMahon 'Life sucks...and then you die'. 

The Farrellys could often be bleaker than the Coens. As a teenager I remember being extremely disturbed by Woody Harrelson's dismemberment in Kingpin and his ensuing transformation from a long locked healthy 17 year old to a balding middle aged dead beat with a paunch. It's literally like the Farrellys intended to stab a dagger into the heart of the lie that is 'youth' that's constantly peddled to us in pop culture. A Farrelly protagonist is generally middle aged, adolescence is nothing more than a gag or a time of trauma when one is marked by an excruciating experience which scars you for the rest of your life. When we were growing up in the late 90s and the early 2000s renting adult comedies like American Pie, Road Trip and others, what distinguished the Farrelly films was that the stories weren't about people our age or our elder siblings' ages, they were usually about characters who were our parents' age, and to see someone in his 30s and 40s behaving like that was always indelible. To see Bill Murray and Randy Quaid both big men well into their 40s behave like infants was delightfully subversive. 

The Farrellys have pretty much worked with most of the icons from the 90s SNL pantheon. They have also faced a lot of flack for their treatment of characters with disabilities, but look to a scene in the Peter Farrelly scripted 'Outside Providence' (based on his semi-autobiographical novel) and you will find a scene in which an older brother is deliberately mean to his paraplegic wheelchair bound younger brother so that he doesn't get the sense that he's different and special, that he's just like everybody else and belongs. It's a deeply touching scene as is the mentally challenged Rocket's ejection of a disgruntled restaurant customer in 'Stuck on you'. Bob and Walt the two conjoined twins tell the asshole patron that they don't like 'freaks'. 

Most of the Farrelly films had a blue collar setting and were often about working class people; a far cry from the Las Vegas slickness of the Hangover series. Jim Carrey has referred to them as Blue Collar Buddhists, that they are extremely attached to everyone from their lives and that they carry them along on all their films, a rarity in showbiz. They're constantly putting old friends and people they went to school with in their movies. 

To me it's no surprise that Jim Carrey has taken up painting. Some of his performances were evocative of Goya or Francis Bacon: the splitting open and intermingling of the flesh. The malleable form moulded to its gargantuan extremity. The Farrellys and the Coens too like to explode on screen in various forms. Celluloid is their canvas. Along with the far gentler Wes Anderson they tend to let their jokes designed around incongruous circumstances play out to their logical end, often traversing enormously awkward terrain in the process. They truly understand the whole darn human comedy. People find their films mean spirited and cruel, but they seem to be our last great 'tragedians' and 'humanists', who understand deeply the cruel jokes life often plays on us. Here's hoping the two sets of brothers get to keep making films as long as the earth keeps turning, and as long as our unscrupulous creator keeps winking at us from up above.

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.

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