- The ties that bind: Dad lends a rare helping hand to Dunph.
When last we encountered Peter and Bobby Farrelly, they were pelting movie houses with industrial-strength jokes about retarded kids, lost semen, found excrement, and exploding house pets. Good plan. There's Something About Mary turned into last summer's surprise hit and catapulted the brothers to the top of Hollywood's A List where "A" proudly stands for "Adolescent."
Compared to Mary, or to the Farrellys' equally profitable 1994 valentine to blockheads, Dumb and Dumber, Outside Providence is a subdued piece of business indeed. Adapted from Peter Farrelly's 1988 novel of the same name his first book it's the surprisingly tender and resolutely unpostmodern tale of a rudderless, blue-collar teen who has to grow up in a hurry when he's shipped off to spend his senior year at a tweedy New England prep school. Young Tim Dunphy has crashed into a police car, and Dad isn't happy about it.
Tim's traumas are pretty familiar, especially in a time when every third movie is about teenage angst: He's looking for love, a little guidance, and an occasional hit of pot. Luckily, the beleaguered Dunph, a son of grimy Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is also full of the old Farrelly mischief. The brothers' famous gift for joining rude comic aggression with sweet innocence is again at play, and their fresh-faced star, Shawn Hatosy (The Faculty, In and Out), is ideally cast as a streetwise smart-mouth who can also be lovably baffled by, say, the actual location of Arizona. Whether he's swilling beer and cursing fate with his slacker friends in Pawtucket or trying to evade the authorities at his new boarding school, he's one of the most appealing teen heroes of the moment.
It doesn't hurt that the Farrellys and director Michael Corrente (American Buffalo), who collaborated on the screenplay, have front-loaded Providence with a touch of sentiment Charles Dickens might have endorsed and a brand of nostalgia you might not expect from the wisecracking brothers. For one thing, the story is set in the mists of 1974. For another, Our Dunph comes equipped with a crippled younger brother (Tommy Bone), a three-legged dog, and a snarling bigot of a father (Alec Baldwin) who can't find a way to love him. Mom is out of the picture altogether up in the cemetery.
In book and movie, though, author Peter Farrelly is constitutionally determined to keep the humor sharp and the sap flow under control. Dunph never pities his brother or himself (it's one of the reasons we like him), and even the obligatory father-tries-to-reach-boy scene, in which the unshaven ogre stops calling his son "dildo" and "assbag" long enough to show him how to knot his tie, has just the right throwaway quality.
Meanwhile, the prep school stuff is classic, which is to say it's about one golden autumn afternoon short of cliché. Leafy Cornwall Academy is furnished with the same array of snobs, nerds, jocks, and crypto-fascist teachers we've met in every example of the genre from A Separate Peace to Dead Poets Society. And Tim Dunphy is the kind of sensitive outsider Americans have cherished since Holden Caulfield discovered that grown-ups are phonies.
Repeat viewers of There's Something About Mary may be hoping for more frontal assaults on their sense and sensibility, but Outside Providence comes up a little short in that department. Still, it does contain a couple of screechingly funny bits that reveal the Farrelly style at its most pointed. A very proper prep school dean reads aloud a wonderfully illiterate, surpassingly obscene letter sent to Dunph by his hometown pal Drugs Delaney (John Abrahams). The teenage hoax by which the hero's hopelessly geeky roommate, Jizz (Jack Ferver), has earned his nickname is replayed in detail. And if you're looking for drugs, booze, and barfing, you'll get your share.
But what's this? By the end of this comparatively genteel paean to vanished youth, the nihilistic brothers Farrelly wind up promoting good study habits, loyalty in friendship, and proper grooming. These moviemakers, who have elsewhere made a virtue of buffoonery and a black joke out of serial murder, come close to cheerleading for high SAT scores and mature thought processes.
However, lest true believers worry that the Farrellys have lost their instinct for the jugular or begun to grow up, rest assured that, among their several works-in-progress these days is something called Stuck on You billed as a comedy about Siamese twins.