Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed by Peter Farrelly

Written by Peter Farrelly, Bennett Yellin, and Bobby Farrelly

With Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Lauren Holly, Karen Duffy, Victoria Rowell, Mike Starr, Charles Rocket, Felton Perry, Harland Williams, and Teri Garr.


Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed and written by Ron Shelton With Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Wuhl, Lolita Davidovich, Lou Myers, J. Kenneth Campbell, Eloy Casados, Rhoda Griffis, Paula Rudy, and Ernie Harwell.

The profits are still being toted up, but essentially the results are in: Cobb, released six weeks ago, is a resounding commercial disappointment–still nominally running, but not expanding to wider markets. And Dumb and Dumber, which came out a month ago, remains at the top of the charts. Neither outcome is very surprising, but since both movies deal blatantly and unremittingly with unpleasant material, they prompt some reflection on why certain kinds of unpleasantness sell and others don’t.

The unpleasantness in Dumb and Dumber is basically gross-out humor–the subject of at least half of an interesting critical book that appeared last year. William Paul’s Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror & Comedy traces the gross-out movie back to two enormously successful films of the 70s, The Exorcist and Animal House, describing this genre in most cases as anarchic and nihilist. Dumb and Dumber grosses us out mainly with toilet jokes, other jokes in bad taste, and grossly physical humor, such as Jim Carrey’s manic grimaces and Jeff Daniels’s getting his tongue stuck on a ski-lift pole while licking the frost. A lot of the humor intentionally reflects the temperament and predilections of boys around the age of nine or ten, and the movie dishes it out with a fair amount of verve and no trace of pretension; all it wants to do is amuse us, and fairly often it succeeds.

The unpleasantness of Cobb, on the other hand, is a troubled, unresolved moral agenda. The lead character, Ty Cobb–as played by Tommy Lee Jones and written and directed by Ron Shelton, very freely adapting a recent biography by Al Stump–is odious, and it’s understandably difficult to square this odiousness with the legend of the greatest of all baseball players. It might be argued, moreover, that the seriousness and ambition of this project preclude the sort of light entertainment Shelton has so skillfully provided in earlier features–Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and, to a lesser extent, Blaze. Indeed, there’s little evidence here of Shelton’s two standbys: salty-witty dialogue (often spiced with southern rhetoric and braggadocio) and the excitement of sports events. What we get instead is some sincere grappling with intractable data in a movie essentially turned against itself–an interesting kind of confusion in some ways but not likely to sell many tickets.

It may seem a shotgun marriage to link two pictures so clearly opposed to each other in their aspirations and intended audiences; but both, I think, have things to say about the times we’re living in, including the degree to which becoming mean and meaner is currently regarded as an asset. Both exult in a certain kind of antisocial abrasiveness–though Dumb and Dumber takes much of this behavior for granted, while Cobb worries over it endlessly. And both are fundamentally concerned with the ambiguous kind of freedom that derives from self-interest. To put it in the bluntest possible terms, I think both have something to say about the moral ugliness of capitalism; both movies accept as inevitable this turbulence in the currents of the American dream, even if they arrive at very different conclusions about it. But typically, neither film is free to confront this issue directly; too many commercial and ideological considerations get in the way. So what we wind up with in both cases are half statements about the subject.

In Dumb and Dumber, Carrey and Daniels play a couple of half-wits named Lloyd and Harry in Providence, Rhode Island, who dream of owning a worm store called I Got Worms; Lloyd drives a limo, and Harry runs a dog-grooming business. Lloyd falls for a customer named Mary (Lauren Holly) when he drives her to the airport, where she’s flying to Aspen. Unaware that she’s going there to pay a ransom for her kidnapped husband, he picks up the attache case she leaves behind in the airport, then convinces Harry to drive to Aspen in his van so they can return the case. Before the pair leave town, two of the kidnappers search Lloyd and Harry’s apartment for the case, and one of them rips off the head of Harry’s pet parakeet as a “warning”–which the half-wits characteristically interpret as the bird’s natural death from old age. But they’re not entirely lacking in guile; for extra cash, Lloyd sells the beheaded parakeet to a blind boy in their building–a transaction he tells Harry about, reluctantly, only afterward.

After many mishaps, the pair arrive in Aspen, where Harry winds up secretly dating Mary while pretending to have set up a date between her and Lloyd. When the attache case accidentally opens and they find a hoard of money inside, Harry and Lloyd go on a tacky spending binge, replacing the bills inside the case with IOUs.

If the innocence of Lloyd and Harry is a slapstick staple, their radical self-interest–such as Lloyd’s sale of the dead parakeet and Harry’s secret dating of Mary, among many other examples–is relatively new. That meanness is anticipated in the equally dumb heroes of Elaine May’s much-maligned 1987 Ishtar, played by Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty–colleagues, roommates, and friends who also wind up plotting against each other. It’s not the sort of behavior one typically associates with Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Cheech and Chong, or Mike Myers and Dana Carvey–not to mention Forrest Gump. And it sits oddly alongside these characters’ childish games and their naivete about most other matters. Carrey seems fully aware of this discrepancy when he remarks in the movie’s press materials, “Even though Lloyd and Harry have screwed up morals, we wanted to help bring out their innocence since there is a wholesome purity about them.”

Selfishness combined with a wholesale purity and innocence sounds to me like the utopian myth of unencumbered capitalism–rather like the Contract With America framed by a heart and bedecked with pink ribbons. It’s a concept quite compatible with this movie’s coarse, heartless treatment of one villain’s painful death via ulcer attack and rat poison. In a movie that literally begins at a place called Hope Street, the unlimited capacity to cheat and exploit one’s partners guiltlessly is the necessary corollary to freely pursuing one’s personal dreams of self-fulfillment, which also includes “action painting” with plastic catsup and mustard dispensers. In this largely scatological framework, dumbness becomes an enviable state of grace that can only lead to riches, as it does in Forrest Gump.

You don’t have to be a rigorous Freudian to appreciate the fact that both Harry and Lloyd receive their comeuppance in bathrooms, where excrement and accumulated wealth become at least poetically interchangeable. When Lloyd discovers that Harry’s been dating Mary, he takes revenge by spiking Harry’s coffee with laxative before Harry leaves for Mary’s house, where he’s forced to take a protracted dump complete with hyperbolic sound effects–only to be told afterward by Mary that the toilet is broken and won’t flush. Lloyd intercepts Mary during this crisis to give her the attache case in his hotel room, and significantly we find him rehearsing, then ineffectually delivering his declaration of love to her in the adjoining bathroom.

Despite the sheer dehumanizing unreality of all the situations and characters, heroes and villains alike, on the movie’s own gross-out terms the sale of the dead parakeet and Harry’s climactic dump are two of its funniest moments, and Harry’s frozen tongue and icicle drool are even funnier. But the movie does suggest that the dream of unencumbered accumulation is irrevocably tied to the experience of being a kid–and that in both situations you’re left with shit on your fingers.

Cobb matters a lot more to me than Dumb and Dumber, yet as a piece of story telling and as a statement it’s undeniably a mess. If Dumb and Dumber is conceived vaguely in the shadow of Martin and Lewis, Cobb deliberately pitches its tent in the shadow of Citizen Kane. It begins with a biographical black-and-white newsreel about its subject, then proceeds directly to a confab with excitable journalists, complete with overlapping dialogue, before one of them gets dispatched to cover the story that the rest of the movie is about. Late in the film there’s even an awkward approximation of the “Rosebud” motif when the story flashes back to a childhood incident in Cobb’s life that perhaps “explains” his tortured, icy, remote character.

I say “perhaps” because Shelton seems genuinely stumped (if I can be forgiven a pun) by Cobb’s personality. Consequently he comes up with not a single approach but a whole slew of them, each one modifying or contradicting its predecessor. Whereas Citizen Kane alluded to William Randolph Hearst or invented data about its hero wherever it saw fit, Cobb is hamstrung by the task of trying to fairly represent not only Cobb but his original “official” biographer, Al Stump, who is still alive. This is complicated even further by the fact that Stump wrote two Cobb books–a cleaned-up “as told to” autobiography, My Life in Baseball: The True Record (1961), and the much more candid biography published last year. Most of the movie is about the writing of the first book, though Shelton hedges his bets somewhat by having the fictionalized Stump (Robert Wuhl) writing two books simultaneously back in 1960–the “official” autobiography demanded by Cobb and a secret version consisting of notes hidden in his suitcase.

Unfortunately, the relationship between Cobb and Stump as depicted here isn’t very substantial or interesting, and the fictionalized Stump’s offscreen narration feels rather concocted; what the movie has to say about Cobb mainly leaks through around the edges of this cumbersome apparatus. Just as Stump wrote two manuscripts, one often feels that Shelton has two movies in his head–the one he wants to make and the one that all the real-life material and various commercial considerations oblige him to make.

What finally emerges, thanks to several sentimental flourishes, is a movie in an old Hollywood tradition extending from Citizen Kane to Hud to Patton–the celebration of the charismatic bastard. But one is left with an undertow of uncertainty and anxiety because the movie can’t quite explain or justify the unpleasant side of this sadist, wife beater, racist, drunken lout, vicious thug, alleged game fixer, and probable murderer. Yet if Shelton had succeeded in giving us a fully digestible, rationalized portrait of Cobb, the results would surely have been monstrous. (Another combination liability/asset is the all-stops-out performance of the recently overexposed Tommy Lee Jones, who works wonders with the part yet never lets us forget his bravura Oscar-ready acting–thereby succumbing to what might be termed, thanks to Nell, the Jodie Foster Syndrome.)

But if Cobb fails where Citizen Kane succeeds–at articulating a fully rounded, satisfying dramatic statement–it arguably shares with that film the failure to arrive at the essence of the ideological question that haunts the plot; both movies repeatedly brush against without ever confronting head on the moral ugliness of capitalism. This failure is less apparent in Citizen Kane because of the movie’s theatrical brilliance–a brilliance ultimately too tied to an infatuation with the glamour and power of capitalism to allow analysis of its predatory underpinnings. In Cobb, the failure is more debilitating because Shelton appears to have stumbled upon this theme rather than set out to articulate it. (It’s certainly not a theme that imposes itself in the same way in Stump’s recent biography.)

Still, the issue of capitalism is certainly present–not only in terms of Cobb’s investments and personal wealth but also, more indirectly and metaphorically, through the medium of baseball and its own preoccupation with numbers. While attempting to rape at gunpoint a fictional cigarette girl, Ramona (Lolita Davidovich), Cobb announces he’s had “4,191 base hits, 11,429 at bats, 920 stolen bases, 2,244 runs scored, 93 batting records, and I want you to take off every stitch of your clothes”–a litany that reeks of bankable assets almost as fully as the sex in Pretty Woman. (Later, after he’s unable to get an erection, Cobb gives the woman $1,000 to lie about his impotence and claim she had great sex with him.)

The issues of unencumbered capitalism and guiltless self-interest are more generally and successfully broached in the film’s approach to the success ethic. As a friend who lived and worked in Hollywood once said to me, “In order to be happy in this town, you not only have to succeed–it’s also necessary that your best friends fail.” As both Stump’s biography and this movie make clear, Ty Cobb had no friends, and the degree to which his success was predicated on others’ failure and suffering, of which he seemed fully aware, helps explain why. His isolation certainly casts a long shadow over his achievement as a sports star, and Shelton does everything he can to try to come to terms with that paradox: the film seems to have about five endings. Even the inspired use of a spiritual called “Life Is a Ball Game” over the closing credits is succeeded by various Cobb sound bites, concluding with “Baseball was 100 percent of my life.”

“Greatness is overrated,” Ramona says to Stump after admitting that she’s never heard of Cobb. Her indifference to the Cobb legend registers as a kind of oasis of sanity in the overheated climate of sports idolatry. It’s a pity that Shelton couldn’t find more ways of keeping her wisdom in the foreground of this movie. As Dumb and Dumber suggests, if you don’t care so much about achieving greatness–or embodying nihilism, for that matter–audiences are likelier to reward you.