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It’s unfortunate when we have to forgive a franchise it’s latter-day sins, but it happens. Sometimes we stand on the shoulders of giants, and sometimes we fall off those shoulders. “Dumb & Dumber” was one of the unique films that was tremendously effective in its comedy specifically because it didn’t know it would be so great. It was earnest in its approach but knew how to take risks. It respected its audience and it never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a story of two dimwits on a road-trip. It’s a “buddy comedy” through-and-through. Even though the sequel appears to have been a nostalgic cash-grab, that alone cannot unseat the genuine brilliance of the 1994 classic.
The real train-wreck is a film that aspires to dramatic greatness when, at best, it’s a soap opera. We’ve all watched a comedy that over-clocked the same joke, much to our boredom and disappointment. We’ve seen humor recycled ad infinitum and we’ve seen movies that desperately hope a successful punchline from one feature will lead to success in another, a laziness and hubris of film-making that plagues the Hollywood circuit to this day. One of the reasons the new “Ghostbusters” trailer has caught so much negative criticism is because of this. The “that’s gonna leave a mark” gag stretches back as far as Jack Benny and Peter Sellers; it has been uttered by John Candy in “Spaceballs,” Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy,” and Michael Richards (Kramer) in multiple episodes of “Seinfeld,” and this is naming only a very select few.
In the end, audiences recognize when a film is out of its depth, trying too hard for an Oscar, or taking its audience for granted. “Dumb and Dumber” never did this. The characters were honest and three-dimensional, with their own histories and aspirations and shortcomings. A quick glance might reveal a flimsy animated cartoon cell, but an honest viewing of the whole movie shows us characters of agency, two outsiders fumbling about in a world they don’t (and because of their intellectual limitations, can’t) understand.
The Harry and Lloyd characters of “Dumb and Dumber” fulfill the “fish out of water” trope on two important levels. On the first level, they’re too dumb to function in society in any meaningful capacity. They struggle to hold down simple jobs, can’t pay their bills on time, are gullible enough to be swindled by a disabled elderly woman on a motorized cart. On the second level is where we, the audience, can actually meet them halfway and begin to relate to them rather than just laughing at them. On the second level, after finding a suitcase full of money, the duo winds up attempting to blend-in with high-society, a subterfuge that clearly doesn’t work but motivates us to think about how wealth is expressed in our society. It’s never the nugget ring or the gaudy fringed cowboy boots, no matter how expensive, that ever expresses refinement. It’s always something more subtle – the brand of watch, the fold of the pocket square, the part of the hair.
The premise of “Dumb and Dumber” is absurd, yes, but the characters are deployed with such gleeful honesty that it’s difficult not to want to see them succeed. That the film is goofy and recognizes that it’s goofy is what makes it successful. So strap into the Shaggin’ Wagon, stock up on your Binaka, and please, be sure not to fall off the jet-way again.