When The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Warner Bros. had decided to give up on Dumber and Dumber To, the planned sequel to 1994’s hit Dumb and Dumber, fans of DaD creators Bobby and Peter Farrelly must have been upset. The movie was supposed to be shooting right about now, with Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey reprising their roles—the pair being conspicuously absent in the 2003 non-Farrelly prequel Dumb and Dumberer—and, as of September, the Farrelly brothers had tweeted that they were just about done with the script, a story in which the two stars go on a road trip to find the long-lost child of one character in hopes of attaining a kidney transplant. The movie may still get made, but the directors will have to shop it around for new money and distribution now that the studio doesn’t think it’s worth the time and the $30-million-ish budget that THR reports would be required to get the job done.
For those who haven’t been following the Farrelly Brothers, the reaction—even if slightly upset for nostalgia’s sake—was probably much more huh? than darn. But yes, the Farrellys are still making movies at a steady clip. They just haven’t managed to re-capture their box-office magic of the ’90s. Gross and stupid doesn’t seem to be selling these days.
The pair made their names with Dumb and Dumber—though Bobby Farrelly didn’t actually receive a directing credit on the film—and the film has grossed $127.2 million against a $17 million budget. Though their next film, Kingpin, had modest box-office numbers, it was less than four years before There’s Something About Mary came along. Since its 1998 debut, that movie has made $176.5 million domestically, having only cost $23 million to make. And it was pretty much all downhill from there: Me, Myself and Irene did pretty well ($90.6 million in 2000), Shallow Hal did a little less so ($79.8 million in 2001) and follow-ups like Stuck on You, The Heartbreak Kid and The Three Stooges all earned in the 30-40 million-dollar range.
Maybe their movies just got worse: compare Richard Corliss’ review of There’s Something About Mary to Mary Pols’ take on Hall Pass. Maybe it’s the diminished box-office power Farrelly-friendly actors. To look at the chart of 1994’s top movies, by domestic gross, is to visit a past populated mostly by Jim Carrey. The No. 6 movie of the year was Dumb and Dumber. At No. 9, The Mask. At No. 16, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. They’re not his highest-earning films (hello, How the Grinch Stole Christmas) but there’s no denying 1994 was a heck of a year for the actor. His three most recent movies, however, have been disappointments: The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (which THR cites as a reason for Warner’s decision), Mr. Popper’s Penguins and I Love You, Phillip Morris.
But it’s not just the people involved. Look at the live-action comedies that have been successful in recent years—stats below from Box Office Mojo—and it’s clear that the Farrelly brothers got left behind:
Ted — 9th highest-grossing movie of the year; total domestic gross of $218.9 million
MIB 3 — (14), $179m
21 Jump Street — (21), $138.4m
The Hangover Part II — (4), $254.5m
Bridesmaids — (14), $169.1m
Horrible Bosses — (23), $117.5m
Grown Ups — (15), $162m
Little Fockers — (16), $148.4m
The Other Guys — (21), $119m
The Hangover — (6), $277.3m
The Proposal — (16), $164m
Paul Blart: Mall Cop— (19), $146.3m
Sex and the City — (11), $152.6m
Marley and Me — (14), $143.2m
Get Smart — (19), $130.3m
Leaving aside the most superficially awesome thing about this list—that 21 Jump Street came in at 21—this is very clearly not 1994. With a few possible exceptions of (full disclosure: I did not see Grown Ups or Paul Blart or Little Fockers) these 15 films represent a broad swath of comedy styles far from that strange combination of sweet-and-gross that the Farrellys traffic in. Sure, there are moments of disgustingness—Bridesmaids’ dress-boutique scene, for example—but Dumb and Mary were, in part, about being gross. When Mary came out, Roger Ebert wrote that it was “an unalloyed exercise in bad taste”—and that he liked it. Entertainment Weekly wrote up the trend: for 1998, “goopy bodily substances and odors are the happiest of happy topics among moviegoing adults.” As for Dumb and Dumber, the New York Times review noted that the “funniest scene in the movie involves a powerful laxative, a broken toilet and some graphically colorful sound effects.”
For better or worse, poop jokes—like so many movie stars of past decades—seem to have lost their box-office luster. There are definitely nice things about the new comedy scene (for example, more room for comedies like The Proposal and Bridesmaids that were made by women). And maybe it means we’re all just a little more sophisticated, even the teenage boys among us. We’re more interested in either the absurdism of Will Ferrell or the jaded cynicism of The Hangover than the naïve, low-brow world of the Farrelly ouevre. Seth MacFarlane is the most obvious heir to their gross-out throne, but Ted‘s grossness is a more grown-up, crude and self-aware; he laughs at sex, for example, like a frat boy bragging rather than a high-schooler bewildered.
Or maybe it’s not that we got smarter but that, like someone spending enough time in a smelly room that it just stops smelling, we’ve seen so much it’s just not that gross anymore.