AS THE ROMAN empire fell into decline, it is said that the violence of the gladiator arenas became more gruesome, but did less to titillate the jaded audiences. When more and more decapitations and dismemberments were crammed together into a single show, the imperial citizens' eyes dulled and glazed over, their appetite for brutality proving to be its own undoing. Finally, the fearsome hordes of Germanic barbarians had to come and liberate the jaded citizenry from their controlled violence by means of true, ravenous, unfettered destruction.
It seems as though we ourselves, the denizens of the great American Empire, have come to a similar impasse as we begin the new century. The impasse is most clearly seen in the latest film from the Farrelly brothers, the prophetically titled Me, Myself and Irene, wherein not violence but the comedy of grossness produces its final, desperate explosion of excess.
The recently finished fin-de-siecle brought us an exuberant outpouring of such gross-out comedies. The landmark event in that genre was the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary, in which semen was finally given its place alongside the rubber chicken and the snake that springs out of a peanut can in the cabinet of comedy goods.
This was followed by many a film wherein feces was featured as funny, and soon it became standard fare at the cinema to see defecating dogs and dripping noses and misguided urination played for laughs. It was truly a golden age.
But could it last? The big studios, with their late-Roman logic that says "more is more so give me more," assumed it could, and continued to pump out this kind of material faster than slave-laboring southeast Asians pump out Nikes.
But with each new iteration, the quantity of gross events in each film must increase as audiences become dulled by surfeit. Thus, in one four-minute sequence of Me Myself and Irene we are treated to (1) a dog defecating, (2) a joke involving vaginal itch cream, (3) a man sucking on a woman's breast and walking away with a human-milk mustache, and (4) a man defecating on his neighbor's lawn.
With such a high percentage of on-screen time dedicated to the disgusting, one might wonder how it is possible to work a plot into this film. Well, the Brothers Farrelly resort to an annoying narrator who simply tells the story. Thus, instead of using scenes to reveal plot or build character, a disembodied voice just floats over the grossness, saying things like "Charlie was a likable guy...Things went bad for Charlie after his wife left him...Charlie and Irene went on the lam for a few days...The police were closing in on Charlie."
The plot is actually fairly convoluted, involving Charlie, a Rhode Island state trooper (Jim Carrey) who gets involved with the titular Irene (Renee Zellwegger), a fugitive who's trying to escape from an evil golf course owner. Oddly, the fact that there's an evil golf course owner is not played for laughs, indicating that perhaps the Farrellys are no longer paying attention to what they're doing.
Things get complicated when Charlie develops a split personality, changing from his obsequious normal self into the violent and sex-crazed "Hank" whenever conflict arises. While Hank tries to protect Irene from the conspiracy of evil police officers and golf course moguls who are trying to kill her, he does so mostly so he can trick her into sleeping with him. And also so he can insert a giant rubber dildo into his anus while she watches. This film, by the way, is not for kids.
In fact, having exhausted the genre of jokes about that which exits one's alimentary canal, the Farrellys have suddenly become enamored of witty visual puns wherein something takes the reverse course, and enters the human colon from below. However, even this stunningly inventive comic notion gets used up rather quickly, and when a chicken is inserted into a man's anus, we get the feeling that the Farrellys are just going through the motions.
The brothers aren't helped much by Jim Carrey, who seems decidedly bored with this kind of humor. His normally antic self is oddly subdued. Even when he's mugging and contorting like a monkey in heat, he seems like a monkey who doesn't really care that much about being in heat, and would rather have a dramatic part in some monkey production of King Lear or The Cherry Orchard.
So I wonder if this is the end of the line for the beloved gross-out genre. Does the future hold a cinema devoid of feces-smeared actors whose snot and spit are their greatest comic weapons? Will our children grow up in a world without potty humor? I can only pray that, just as the German hordes brought true violence back to the Roman empire, some barbaric infusion of grossness from the north will return us to our gross-out innocence. I hope the Canadians are up to the task.