Only if there’s nothing on TV but interviews with Hillary Clinton, and you can’t get into any movie except the Cremaster cycle; only then should you see Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. This may be the worst prequel ever made—unless you cherish mammoth farting, food smearing, and other regressive escapades. Then again, gross-out regression is a major pleasure of the genre this comedy presumes to be part of. I’m talking about that peculiar variation of the buddy film in which two hopelessly dim but basically fuckable dudes get a life, even if they can’t find their car.
All buddy films offer an image of freedom founded in fraternal anarchy—two men against some incarnation of the system. In the special-needs version of this genre, there’s another enemy: competence as a measure of masculinity. The deepest pleasure of this text is its subversion of the idea that men are rewarded for strength and cunning. Here, the good life can be lived—and girls can be gotten—while dressing dorky and acting with an eager sense of sans savoir faire.
There’s always an ideal dimension to these films, an assumption that two fools moving through a harsh world can make it. We root for them not just because they’re underdogs but also because they offer an alternative to the official model of male power. These dim-witted guys get to be humongously libidinal, but instead of dominating women like true studs, they stupit to conquer. And the friendship that keeps them from falling entirely off the social map is a welcome relief from the heroic image of men arranging themselves in rigid hierarchies. Dumb buddies are outcasts from the male order.
Still, its specter haunts this utopia. If anything, hierarchy is more of an issue in Dumb and Dumber (1994) and its flop-sweat follow-up than in those Crosby-Hope road movies that are among the antecedents of this genre. In the anti-fascist ’40s, the image of two unregimented guys having an adventure seemed like the essence of freedom. Today it almost seems politically correct. From the Farrelly Brothers on, dumb-buddy comedies have an alpha and a beta.
These positions don’t necessarily reflect intelligence. In Dumb and Dumber, it turns out that Harry, the Jeff Daniels character, can read, while Jim Carrey’s Lloyd struggles to sound out t-h-e (which he haltingly recites as “te-heh“). Yet Lloyd is the top man by dint of his amour propre. The grand illusion of his self-regard is no small part of what makes this film a gaffe riot. But it’s also what entitles Lloyd to make decisions that disadvantage his friend.
The most interesting thing about Harry and Lloyd (the bastard grandsons of Harold Lloyd?) is how they differ from comedy duos of the past, such as Abbott and Costello or Martin and Lewis. These acts were all about a butt-dumb bottom destabilizing a smartass top. But in today’s version, the alpha isn’t besieged. Aside from threatening to leave him, Harry doesn’t mess with Lloyd. How different from the days when an irrepressible Jerry could shatter Dino’s pretensions with a childish, chimp-like whine. The current absence of turnaround goes with a sensibility that respects the male order and looks for enemies elsewhere.
In Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), the joke is on feminism, fag power, and other liberal pieties. Call it a dumb-buddy comedy for a conservative time. Male defensiveness is another major difference between today’s deficient duos and a pair like Martin and Lewis. Back then, one of the guys had to be normal. Though his competence was subject to subversion, his authority was not. Because his status was so secure, it could be challenged without damage. These days, the fulcrum of normalcy is gone. All you have are two dumb guys making their way through a baffling life. What does that say about the state of masculinity?
To understand the brave new nudnik world, you have to go back to the ’80s, when the lines of male power were being challenged on many fronts. One of them was the dumb-buddy film, as it fell into the doobie-stained hands of Cheech and Chong. Not only was there no alpha in their crash pad, but there was no white man (except for the man). The perpetual haze of grass and grooviness allowed for all sorts of what-the-fuck dysfunction. You could smash your car up, stash your beer in a fish tank, and still get laid. This retro image of freedom was the perfect antidote to the Yuppie era, and it survived until the late ’80s, when Bill and Ted offered a transcendental alternative to the power tie. Here, the hippie met the surfer and produced the fool as an emblem of the California sublime.
Think of it as Parsifal in search of the Holy Slurpee! Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) is a scavenger hunt through history that smashes all sorts of canonical order, and the bond between these dudes requires no hierarchy at all. There’s no alpha and beta, just two babe-seeking groovers who are anything but macho. Their motto, “Be excellent to each other,” was already so out of its time that it could only be presented as the dogma of a futuristic air-guitar-based faith. When you consider the evolution of the Keanu Reeves icon, from tender Ted to Neo in the Matrix saga, you can see how the pop concept of the savior has changed for the worse.
By the time we get to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, male hierarchy is back with a vengeance, and the age of dumb-buddy paranoia has arrived. Bill and Ted seem positively femme next to these down-and-out stoners. Cruelty, the classic male response to resentment, is factored into Jay’s persona. He’s nasty, homophobic, and about as transcendent as Beavis. Signs of holy innocence remain in Silent Bob, but it’s Jay, the angry white alpha, who gets the girl. Meanwhile, resistant bitches and pussy-whipped men bite the dust. The film delivers a very contemporary message: There are few rewards for real dumbness, fewer still for true simplicity, and fewest of all for being a male bottom.
In light of this rich history, what are we to make of Dumb and Dumberer? As little as possible—except that it contains some spat-out seeds of its predecessor. It is crude but not sexist, and the closest it comes to a queer joke is young Lloyd’s warning to the starry-eyed Harry: “Chicks are for fags.” Embedded in that double bind is a trace of the existential dilemmas that made the original such a classic. Of course, nothing in this ill-fated prequel compares with the frozen-tongue episode in Dumb and Dumber, which Albert Camus surely would have understood as a slapstick evocation of the absurd. Harry and Lloyd never get a break because they’re too stupid to take advantage of the breaks they get. In the end, this film isn’t about freedom but forbearance.
Dumb and Dumber had a Sisyphean sense of life, not to mention generating the perfect balance between cringing and cracking up that is the essence of dumb-buddy comedy. Will we ever see its developmentally disabled like? Stay tuned for Dummy Dearest—I hope.