It's become tougher than ever to make people laugh without goring somebody's bull. Even the crown princes of incorrect waggery, Bobby and Peter Farrelly, seem on the defensive. In recent interviews the brothers have taken to insisting that they really, really have nothing but respect for the disabled people who appear in their movies. Given that some commentators have seen the fall of civilization in Billy Bob Thornton's booze-soaked mug in "Bad Santa," it's hard not to blame the Farrellys for being jumpy.
So it's nice to report that while much of the unlikely charm of the Farrellys' newest comedy, "Stuck on You," comes from its conceptual purity, much of the film's humor comes from its blissful impurity. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear star as the conjoined Bob and Walt, twins literally stuck to each other. Reluctant to risk an operation for fear of fatal consequences, the brothers have resigned themselves to living as each other's shadow, a restriction they have surmounted with the coordinated grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Beavis and Butt-head, depending on the smut factor. For while many of the film's blushingly funny bits are of the Playboy joke-page variety and play best with those for whom Don Rickles remains the bomb, its smartest stuff pivots on contemporary attitudes toward correct and incorrect humor.
One of the things that gives the Farrellys a modern tang is how they play with the concept of political correctness, which often comes across as the reductio ad absurdum of partisan squeamishness. Bob and Walt are joined together by a flexible stretch of skin and viscera that connects one brother's side to the other's. To most of the world, this physical quirk looks like a debilitating hindrance, a handicap. The brothers don't just sleep in the same bed (they don't spoon, they stack); they also shower, work and check hockey pucks side by side. But this being a Farrelly comedy, where appearances are inevitably deceiving, the twins don't see themselves as handicapped or particularly different from anyone in their Rhode Island town. Theirs is the ultimate band of brothers.
The story, which the Farrellys originally conceived before "There's Something About Mary," still their most fully realized comedy, involves Walt's dream of Hollywood success. When the film opens, Walt is preparing for his star turn in a local production of "Tru," Jay Presson Allen's one-man play about Truman Capote. Bob suffers from acute stage fright, but he goes along with Walt onstage — where, dressed all in black, he cowers next to his triumphant brother — and then to Los Angeles. Because neither twin can imagine doing something without the other, their physical connection is less an issue of choice or constraint and more a matter of love. For them, the flesh that binds them has long ceased being a disability; rather, it is the very substance of their being — their identity.
The Farrellys are well known for filling their movies with physically and mentally disabled actors and civilians, an unusual proclivity (particularly in Hollywood) that has raised more than a few censorious eyebrows. One of the smaller roles in "Stuck on You" belongs to Ray "Rocket" Valliere, a middle-aged man who appears to have a developmental disability that, it emerges, has no bearing on his fine performance. The comedy Valliere stirs up doesn't hinge on his disability but on the lines and bits of business the Farrellys give him. Which is why it's a shame that the Farrellys slip in a clip during the end credits of Valliere effusively thanking everyone, because that has the unfortunate effect of separating him from the very community he has just been seamlessly a part of.
There's something so wonderfully utopian about the Farrellys' worldview that I wish they didn't feel the need to explain why everyone in their movies gets put through the same comic wringer, whether it's a man sitting in a wheelchair or a woman flexing her pneumatic splendor. If "Stuck on You" never reaches the lunatic heights of "There's Something About Mary," it isn't because Bob and Walt are conjoined twins but because Walt's yearning doesn't burn as brightly as Ben Stiller's did in "Mary." Damon and Kinnear give winning codependent performances, with Damon playing boyishly bashful to Kinnear's faux worldliness. But neither brings to the film the simmering menace, the threat of annihilating disaster that Stiller, Bill Murray (in "Kingpin") and especially Jim Carrey (in "Me, Myself and Irene") brought to earlier Farrelly comedies.
Sweeter and softer than their earlier comedies, and largely devoid of gags about bodily functions, "Stuck on You" has the vibe of a transitional work, as if the brothers were trying to see how a post-scatological Farrelly comedy could play. There's a kind of shambling easiness to the scenes, which makes the whole thing feel both less frantic and slower than usual. The stepped-down tempo may mean the Farrellys have grown weary of selling their jokes so hard or it could signal the perils of success. I hope that isn't the case. The Farrellys have always come across as nice guys, but in the past their niceness was coated with a thick, gooey layer of the vulgar and the profane. Here's hoping their newly cleaned-up act doesn't sanitize them.
'Stuck on You'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for crude and sexual humor and some language
Times guidelines: Jokes about anatomy; generous décollatage.
Matt Damon ... Bob
Greg Kinnear ... Walt
Eva Mendes ... April
Wen Yann Shih ... May
Seymour Cassel ... Morty O'Reilly
Twentieth Century Fox presents a Conundrum Entertainment/Charles B. Wessler production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Writers Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Story by Charles B. Wessler, Bennett Yellin, Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Producers Bradley Thomas, Charles B. Wessler, Bobby and Peter Farrelly. Director of photography Daniel Mindel. Production designer Sidney J. Bartholomew Jr. Editors Christopher Greenbury, Dave Terman. Costume designer Deena Appel. Music supervisors Tom Wolf, Manish Raval. Makeup effects designer Tony Gardner. Casting Rick Montgomery. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In general release.