Dumb and Dumber appropriately capped off not just Jim Carrey’s breakout year in 1994, but also the year that saw audiences and ultimately the Oscars alike wholeheartedly, empty-headedly embracing the maxim “stupid is as stupid does.” It would take a few more films before Peter and Bobby Farrelly would truly find their voice. The worst one could say about their charter effort is that it was what it was: a cheerful embodiment of homegrown idiocy, though unlike Forrest Gump not a valedictory defense of it. Its outsized success rested largely on the Alfalfa ears of Carrey’s Lloyd, though the spectacle of an actor as comparatively studied as Jeff Daniels unleashing enough diarrhea as Harry to fill an Olympic swimming pool didn’t hurt. Neither did Harry and Lloyd’s safe chemistry, rendering them among the least homoerotic pairings in the entire history of buddy films.
The sequel, Dumb and Dumber To, makes the most of their broadly neutered existence. It’s been 20 years since Mary Samsonite walked out of Lloyd’s life, and Harry is struggling to cope with the possibility that he long ago fathered a child with Fraida Felcher (mentioned only by name in the first film, here embodied by the grouchy but game Kathleen Turner). A long and overly convoluted exposition ultimately leads Harry and Lloyd on the road again, not realizing their third-wheel travel companion is actually an assassin hoping to kill them and steal the valuable package they’re delivering. Sound familiar? There’s much more plot floating around during the sequel, all leading up to a climax at the “KEN Conference” that suffers in comparison to Silicon Valley’s mockery of the same milieu (aside from Patricia French, playing an amusingly gruff hospitality manager, making like Kathleen Freeman in a Jerry Lewis movie). But like most incredibly tardy sequels that function more as reunions than as continuations, Dumb and Dumber To never shies away from recycling itself, which is only a shame in that some of its best moments show how much the Farrelly brothers have evolved as filmmakers and as fartmakers, whereas each self-satisfied “ah lock it a lawh” callback slams the increasingly uneven proceedings back into the comedic equivalent of the fetal position.
The resulting whiplash at least confirms a sort of continuity throughout the Farrellys’ career. Carrey (whose rubber face is still winning the valiant battle against the years of waning collagen, it must be noted) has consistently been their strongest core player at the same time as his overbearing, all-consuming default mode has inevitably forced the Farrellys to up the stakes on their end. As some of their middle-period masterpieces (Shallow Hal, Stuck on You) have proven, the filial pair are capable of profoundly humane comedies, ones which read the temperature of any awkward social situation with the sort of clarity you wouldn’t assume possible from the men whose fame was cemented when, well, Cameron Diaz cemented her cowlick using Ben Stiller’s spunk. Carrey’s raging id always skews their compass, leaving them gasping for air. The first Dumb and Dumber was nascent enough to weather the storm. The self-reflexive psychological violence of Me, Myself & Irene? Not so much.
Still, with age comes wisdom…Will McAvoy aside. (Daniels’s performance frequently suggests he just plain forgot how to play Harry and decided to compartmentalize each trait, starting with that Looney Tunes speech impediment.) Even the return of Carrey to the Farrelly fold circa 2014 reveals rewarding vulnerabilities in both parties, even if the ultimate price is a purported laugh machine that often seems to be running on empty. A number of critics have already noted the Chaplinesque brilliance of a throwaway gag involving Lloyd’s consumption of a hot dog, in which Carrey turns his facial muscles into a one-stop Rube Goldberg device. But even more worthy of praise is the high-wire act Carrey sustains at the movie’s emotional climax, as if trying to hold back tears with his chin, a moment that validates the Farrellys’ belief that in life you never quite know whether to laugh or cry.