Any movie whose first shot is Jonathan Richman playing his guitar in a tree—out on a limb, ha ha—is all right sir.
So begins There’s Something About Mary, the giddy new Farrelly Brothers film starring Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller. Hasn’t JoJo always been 20 feet tall in our hearts anyway? He’s a big thinker, a huge presence, a giant loverboy, a man with a vision vast enough to rhyme “Cleopatra” with “I wonder where she is atra” and get away with it. Jonathan and his scene-stealing, deadpan drummer Tommy Larkin pop up all through the plot to serenade, at one point dressed as the sort of hot dog vendors Jonathan would write a song about, like a phantom B side to “Ice Cream Man.” Considering the storyline in which Ben Stiller goes looking for his high school crush Diaz years after the fact, it’s surprising there’s no reprise of Richman’s stalker anthem “Back in Your Life”:
“I wanna be back in your life / Babyyyy / Babyyyy / Babyyyy.”
This little series of ongoing cameos syncopates the film so thrillingly, you want more. Why can’t all the summer blockbusters feature the college radio heroes of the ’80s as their Greek chorus in song? Like wouldn’t The Last Days of Disco have been a lot perkier if Alex Chilton were standing in the shadows every once and a while covering “The Hucklebuck”? The X-Files a smidgin lighter with the B-52’s hanging around whooping “Planet Claire”?
Armageddon less ra-ra Earth if it cut to the Fastbacks asking do you really want to live “In America”? Of course, a trend this satisfying is bound to get out of hand: Cameron Diaz plus Jonathan could degenerate pretty fast into Gwyneth Paltrow with XTC. Shudder To Think.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 28, 1998