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There's something about the Farrellys

From Dumb and Dumber to Me, Myself, & Irene, two brothers from Rhode Island prove you can make it big in Hollywood with an unzipped sense of humor.
By Bella English

It is 7 p.m. on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard - about as hot an address as there is in Santa Monica. The evening is indigo, streaked with magenta rays from a sunset over the Pacific, just across the street, beyond the palms, beyond the beach. You're in this hip sushi bar, Roku, where they charge, like, 15 bucks for two pieces of raw fish. You've ordered your margarita on the rocks, with salt. "What kind of tequila would you like?" asks the ponytailed waiter with the gorgeous tan. You fumble, trying to come up with an answer that won't make you sound like a complete hayseed, but the only thing that comes to mind is: clear. Clear tequila. You idiot! You get some help from the guy sitting next to you. But not much. "What's that stuff?" Peter Farrelly asks the waiter. "That expensive stuff?" The waiter nods his head sagely and replies: "Patron."

It's settled. The margarita will come with Patron tequila. Peter Farrelly is drinking a beer, and his brother, Bobby, the other half of the hot movie-making duo, is sitting across from you, sipping a glass of cabernet. Next to him is Jack Black, the actor who, in your mind at least, stole the show in High Fidelity, which, happily, you had seen just the week before. Now, the Farrellys are trying to talk him into working on one of their upcoming movies. In walks a tall guy talking into a cell phone - he must be at least 6 feet 5 - and your margarita glass freezes in place, halfway to your lips. Black, bless his heart, waves him over to your table. The two embrace, and Tim Robbins joins you for dinner, accompanied by his brother, David.

You want to say to Robbins: "I loved you in Bob Roberts. Bull Durham is my alltime favorite baseball movie. The Shawshank Redemption was brilliant. Arlington Road was mesmerizing." But you bite your tongue and offer him a plate of half-eaten raw tuna instead. Robbins hands his cell phone to Black. "Sue wants to talk to you," he says. That would be Susan Sarandon, his partner, the mother of his children. You want to say, "My friends and I loved her in Thelma and Louise. My daughter and I thought she was amazing in Anywhere but Here. My sister and I cried over Stepmom." But you bite your tongue and take a big gulp of your margarita.

Robbins shakes the Farrellys' hands. "I'm a big fan," he says, grinning. Boston comes up in the conversation. "You're from the Boston area?" he asks the Farrellys. "That's sane." He talks about growing up in Greenwich Village, the son of a folk singer. Although the Farrellys grew up near Providence, they have lived in Duxbury for several years. Peter recently moved to Martha's Vineyard.

Peter gets around to describing Ringer, the movie he and Bobby are pitching to Jack Black, and the table explodes with laughter. It's the story of a regular guy who poses as a mentally retarded athlete in order to fix the Special Olympics. It's totally un-PC - and totally hilarious. The Farrellys didn't write it, but they plan to produce it. "You mean I gotta play a retard?" asks Black.

Several plates of sushi later, the party breaks up. The Robbins brothers head in one direction, the Farrelly brothers in another. "I love the Farrellys, and you can quote me," Tim Robbins tells me. A few steps later, Peter quips: "He may have been lying." Another few steps and they bump into Brett Harrelson, Woody's brother. Woody was the star of Kingpin, the Farrellys' second movie; he played a bowler with a rubber hand. Later, after Harrelson has climbed into his new BMW convertible and pulled away, nearly hitting the Farrellys, accidentally-on-purpose, Peter adds: "Life out here isn't really like this every night."

Twenty years ago, Peter and Bobby Farrelly were two goof-offs who barely made it out of high school near Providence. Even their parents didn't know what would become of them. They started writing movies and had 15 scripts straight that never made it to the screen. Then along came Dumb and Dumber in 1994, launching them on a trajectory that has brought them fame and fortune - all thanks to movies that some critics say give bad taste a good name. In 1998, their blockbuster sleeper There's Something About Mary did $450 million worth of movie and video business and firmly sealed their reputation as over-the-top - some would say under-the-bottom - comic geniuses.

Needless to say, "politically correct" is not in the brothers' vocabulary. As masters of the outrageous, they typically center their movies on loser types, from the dimwitted roommates in Dumb and Dumber to the hapless guy who gets his penis stuck in his zipper in Mary. The genre, they say, is a purposeful reaction to the softer comedies of the 1980s and their know-it-all stars.

"Those movies were all about guys who knew more than their teacher, they knew more than their boss, their girlfriend," Peter says, citing Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Eddie Murphy as examples. "The smart aleck wore thin." Audiences, the Farrellys felt, were ready for someone they could look down upon. "When you look down on someone," says Peter, "you can sympathize with them."

Speaking of antiheroes, the Farrellys have high hopes for their latest movie, Me, Myself & Irene, thanks largely to Jim Carrey in the role of a schizophrenic state trooper. He has split personalities, both of whom fall in love with Irene, played by Renee Zellweger. "It's a love triangle with the same guy," is the way Peter Farrelly puts it.

Test audiences - at Boston College, Providence College, and in Los Angeles - have raved about the movie, which opens this week. "This is our highest-scoring movie," Peter says. "I think from the first two minutes, you realize it's a different beast. We love it." They also believe it's Carrey's best movie; it's his first R-rated comedy. "He really pushes the envelope on this one," Peter says.

Shreds the envelope is more like it; some critics will likely pitch a fit over a scene in which Carrey drops his drawers and prepares to, uh, deface his obnoxious neighbors' yard. Then there's the scene in which a chicken goes where no chicken has gone before. By now, fans and critics alike know that no Farrelly movie is complete without a signature scene of bathroom humor.

Mary, a romantic comedy that scored high with women, is a tough act to follow. But the Farrellys are not worrried: Irene is likely to be more popular with men, they say, but it did just dandy with women in the test run, too. And the Farrellys don't really care, anyway. "You can never control how a movie does," says Peter. "We love this movie. If this movie did no business at all, I could live with myself."

That's the sort of fun-loving, what-the-hell attitude that permeates the Farrellys' work. On a balmy May afternoon at Big Time Studios in Santa Monica, Me, Myself & Irene is in the crucial final day of editing, but the editing room could be a fraternity house. Guys keep coming and going, cracking jokes. There's a fridge full of Diet Coke and Sprite and lots of junk food.

Bobby, 42, looks like the fraternity president: clean-cut, plaid Bermuda shorts, white shirt, tan, blue-eyed like his father. Peter, 43, looks like the fratty renegade: goatee, longish hair, jeans, and a T-shirt, brown-eyed like his mom. Their personalities are different, too. Bobby is more laid-back, throwing in the wry zinger. Peter is the talker. He's older by 18 months and is used to taking the big-brother lead.

"I've been in the business a long time, and there's no people in the pictures more fun to work for than the Farrellys," says Sam Seig, an assistant film editor who is stationed in front of a monitor, fiddling with equipment. "Every day, it's a joy. People are always laughing, always joking."

Chris Greenbury, the film editor on Irene, who was nominated for an Oscar for editing American Beauty, wants to take a few frames off a scene with Renee Zellweger. Bobby disagrees: "If you cut it, you lose her reaction," he says.

Greenbury, someone in the room notes, has edited all four of the Farrelly "films." Bobby goes fake-ballistic. "Movies," he cries. "Movies. The Farrellys don't make films. We make movies."

What's the difference?

"American Beauty," he replies, "is a great film. Irene is a movie. We're not trying to make any artistic statement. Our movies are just for entertainment value."

A shiny red Jaguar with the license plate DOCKY is parked outside the New Seabury home of Robert and Mariann Farrelly. The car was a gift to the family patriarch from "the boys" and his wife after he recovered from complications following colon surgery last year.

"The boys said, `If Dad lives until September, we're going to buy him a car.' They didn't want to spend the money until they saw that I was going to make it," chuckles Docky Farrelly, 69. He's a retired family physician - everyone called him Doc until the first grandchild rechristened him Docky - who taught medicine at Brown University. Mariann, 67, is a nurse practitioner who works two days a week at a Fall River medical clinic. Five years ago, the couple sold the Cumberland, Rhode Island, home where they'd raised their children and moved to their summer house in New Seabury on Cape Cod. While the house is being renovated, they are borrowing a daughter's vacation home nearby.

Starting in the mid-1950s, five Farrelly babies came along within seven years until, as Docky puts it, "I had my wings clipped." ("After each baby," he explains, "Mariann would go on the birth-control pill, and then to confession, and then get off the pill.") The three girls and two boys grew up close, and they remain so: Each Farrelly movie includes a cast of sisters, nieces, nephews, and, of course, Mariann and Docky.

In leafy Cumberland, the Farrelly household was a magnet for kids and animals of all sorts. There was a pond that Docky stocked with ducks, geese, and swans, and the backyard was big enough for many a neighborhood football game. The kids loved animals; dogs and cats came and went. More than anything, though, it was a house full of pranks and laughter, much of it initiated by the parents. Ask who makes them laugh the most, and the brothers name not Richard Pryor or David Letterman but their parents. "The older they get, the funnier they get," says Peter. "It could be senility, but it's hilarious."

One day, when the boys were 5 and 6, their father loaded all the kids into the car and went shopping for a Mother's Day gift. First stop: the pet shop. "There was this little Peruvian squirrel monkey in a cage," Docky Farrelly recalls. "He was a little ugly green thing, but the kids fell in love with him. I said to the owner, `Is this monkey going to be tame?' He said: `This monkey will be the best friend you ever had.' "

When Mariann walked into the living room on Mother's Day, there was the monkey, and it was all hers. A few days later, Mariann, a master bridge player, had her students over to play. "I noticed they all had this glazed look in their eyes," she says. "So I turned around and looked." There was her Mother's Day present, masturbating in front of the ladies. After the monkey nearly bit Docky's ear off - "so much for my best friend," he notes - they gave him away.

Then there was the time the boys pulled a prank on their unsuspecting mother during a bridge tournament. In those days, ladies dressed up: suits, jewelry, stockings, pumps. Late in the day, one player said, "Oh, Mariann, you have something on your back." Mrs. Farrelly reached back and peeled off a sign that said, "I just pooped."

"I came home at about 11:30 that night and ran up to the boys' room with a fly swatter," she says, laughing at the memory. "I guess that this is where all the toilet humor comes from."

The unforgettable opening scene in There's Something About Mary, in which the bumbling Ben Stiller gets his penis stuck in a zipper just as he is preparing to take his dream date to the prom, actually happened in the Farrellys' Cumberland home. Sort of. When Kathy Farrelly turned 12, she hosted a party. She had a crush on the coolest boy in the class. The boy went into the bathroom and never came out. Finally, Mariann sent her husband in to check on him. A few minutes later, he hollered: "Mariann, get some ice cubes!" (In the movie, it's translated as: "We've got a bleeder!") Between the doctor and the nurse, they got the boy unstuck. For five years, they kept it a secret from their kids. "We didn't want to embarrass the boy," says Mariann.

But it wasn't all fun and games at the Farrelly household. To hear the boys tell it, their parents were taskmasters: no TV during the school week, mandatory study hours. "The rule of the family," says Docky Farrelly, "is that the minimum is a master's degree." The girls - Beth, Kathy, and Cindy - brought home all A's and B's. Today, Beth, who has an MBA and lives in Duxbury, owns a market research firm with her husband. Kathy, who lives in Norton, is a producer for Channel 5's Chronicle. And Cindy is an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles - her brothers are among her clients.

But the boys were another story. "The boys," says their father, "broke my heart in school." Time and again, they brought home C's and D's. Their parents sent them to a Catholic school in Providence. It didn't help. Then they resorted to a time-honored parental method: bribery. When Bobby and Peter were 13 and 14, they wanted dirt motorbikes. "I tell you what," said their father. "You make the honor roll this quarter, and I'll buy each of you a trail bike." Lo and behold, they came home with all A's. The dirt bikes were bought. They lasted two weeks, until Peter crashed into a parked car containing an elderly man just coming home after a two-week hospitalization for heart surgery. Docky put the bikes up for sale that night. The boys' grades plummeted.

"I didn't know what the hell they were going to do in life," says their father. "I was disciplined enough to go to college and medical school and run a medical practice. A parent wants a child to accomplish more than he did."

The Farrelly brothers were hardly a case of dumb and dumber. They were, you might say, lazy and lazier. "Classic underachievers," as Bobby puts it. Both would daydream in class, finding it tough to pay attention. But they weren't, as one might expect, the class clowns. "We'd be more like the kind who would put our heads down on our desks and fall asleep," says Bobby. "We weren't disrespectful." Adds Peter: "We respectfully got D's."

Frantic over their grades, their parents sent them to private school: Peter to the Kent School in Connecticut, which he calls "the strictest coed school in New England." Needless to say, he hated it. (His first of two novels, Outside Providence, which was made into a movie last year, is based on his experiences at Kent). Bobby, meanwhile, was sent to Andover. How on earth did he get in? As if on cue, both parents reply in unison: "Hockey."

The new venues did not help either boy's grades. On Parents Day, the Farrellys visited Peter's teachers. Docky was almost in tears. The French teacher said: "He's doing really poorly. If you tell him to just sit there and be quiet, I'll pass him." But his English teacher told a different story. "He's got quite a knack for writing," she said. ("It's funny," notes Docky today. "Here the boys are, writing all sorts of scripts, and Bobby says he and Peter didn't write 16 pages between them in high school.")

When it came time for college, Peter was turned down by just about every school to which he applied. His father called a friend of his, a priest at Providence College. "Father, you have to help me," he said. Peter was admitted to Providence, where, according to his father, he graduated last in his class. Bobby, meanwhile, got into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York (see "hockey," above). He majored in geology. "I think he thought it had something to do with getting stoned," Peter quips.

After college, Bobby sold life insurance in Providence; he hated every minute. He and a friend from home decided to do something a little more creative, so they invented and patented the world's first round beach towel, The Sun Spot. "So you didn't have to keep turning your towel as the sun moved," he explains. "We worked our tails off but never succeeded." Peter adds: "As it turned out, people don't mind moving their towels."

But a mother never gives up on her child. Mariann Farrelly would slip out of Mass at St. John Vianney in Cumberland a few minutes early on Sunday mornings, raise the hatchback of her Honda Civic, and sell Bobby's round towels to all her friends. "They were big, bright, colorful beach towels. They were beautiful," she says. "I still have a bunch of them somewhere in the cellar."

Peter, meanwhile, was in a similarly unhappy business, selling space on a shipping company out of Boston. One day, he went to see his father. "Pop, I want to become a writer. I want to go to UMass in the creative writing program and get my master's." His father replied, "Pete, you'll never get in."

"I got in," is the son's answer. "I gave them the first 50 pages of my book." That would be Outside Providence, still in gestation at the time.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Peter Farrelly was not happy. All the other students in the writing program were given teaching assistant positions, with pay and perks. "I had been an accounting major, so they wouldn't give me one," he says, a tinge of resentment in his voice nearly two decades later. So, based again on the first 50 pages of Outside Providence, he was accepted into Columbia University's creative writing program, where he earned a master's degree in fine arts.

Today, their parents couldn't be prouder. "I fill up every time I talk about them," says their mother. "They always say, `the Farrelly brothers.' It's so gratifying."

Adds Docky with considerably less sentimentality: "If they were driving a garbage truck, they would have accomplished more than I'd hoped."

In the mid-1980s, after finishing at Columbia, Peter moved to Los Angeles, where he and a high school friend, Bennett Yellin, began writing screenplays. They'd send them to Bobby, who was still pushing his beach towels back in Rhode Island. "Bobby was always editing our stuff, and we felt guilty that he was doing so much work, so we brought him in," says Peter. Eventually, Yellin struck out on his own, and the brothers began their partnership. Their TV heroes were Garry Shandling and Jerry Seinfeld. They sold a script to the latter, but were never hired as writers. "It's a good thing," says Peter, "because we wouldn't have written Dumb and Dumber."

Over the next 10 years, some 15 Farrelly scripts sold, including a rougher version of Me, Myself & Irene (written in 1990), but the pictures never got made. Their breakthrough movie, Dumb and Dumber, gave them the opening to push their outrageous humor to the limits.

Philosophically, the brothers' humor derives from the rawer '70s, when favorites such as National Lampoon's Animal House, Blazing Saddles, and Airplane! were made. Their mentors are the Zucker brothers, who made Airplane!, Police Squad, and the Naked Gun series. In fact, the Farrellys and Zuckers are now collaborating on a script called The Boss's Daughter.

Although the Farrellys' hallmark is to push the envelope of taste, they are sensitive to criticism that they are being insensitive. Peter likes to say their movies "have heart." They would never poke fun at a cripple, they say, despite a sequence in There's Something About Mary in which a guy on crutches painstakingly drops his keys and can't retrieve them. ("You find out later he isn't really crippled," says Peter. "He's faking it.")

They acknowledge that their humor is edgy but resent the "gross-out" label they're often tagged with. "Gross gets `uhh' from the viewers; funny gets a laugh," says Peter. "It's got to be funny." They point to the semen-as-hair-gel scene in Mary as one that could have been gross if handled differently, but it turned out to be a show-stopper.

Besides The Boss's Daughter, current projects include:

Stuck on You, about hockey-playing Siamese twins. Their ideal leads: Jim Carrey and Woody Allen. Carrey and Allen as twins? "Well," says Peter, "they share a liver, and 90 percent of the liver is in the Carrey character, so Woody is not aging well."

Say It Isn't So: Boy meets girl of his dreams; she turns out to be his sister. But not really. A romantic comedy starring Sally Field, Heather Graham (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and Chris Klein (American Pie), it just wrapped up filming in Vancouver. Others wrote and directed it; the brothers are producing it.

Osmosis Jones: An animated movie written by Marc Hyman, who graduated from Boston University and Emerson College. It takes place inside the human body and stars Chris Rock as a white blood cell in the title role. Bill Murray also stars. The Farrellys are directing.

Basket Case: Agoraphobic non-jock has to shoot a basket during half-time of a packed basketball game in order to win a million dollars; in the works.

Shallow Hal, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as both a fat and a thin version of herself. Shooting begins in the fall.

It's a lot of work, this brotherly collaboration, a lot of togetherness. Luckily, say those who know them, their talents and personalities complement each other's. Peter tends toward the more physical comedy, Bobby the more verbal. Peter is the music freak, whose movie soundtracks have been praised. Bobby gets credit for his editing skills. The writing they do together.

On a set, the codirectors never double-team the actors. "It's intimidating and confusing," Peter says. "Bobby often sits in front of the monitor, and I deal more face to face with them." Occasionally, the two will have differences, but they always leave them at the office. "He pulled a gun on me once," Peter jokes, "but it didn't have bullets."

For his part, Bobby says that Peter has always been the big brother. "If some bully was picking on me, instead of me getting my ass kicked, he did," he laughs.

Hollywood has sung a siren song to two goofy guys from Rhode Island, but the pull of family and land is the underlying force in their lives. Though the brothers each married women from the West Coast, they live most of the year back east. Bobby's wife, Nancy, a former flight attendant, is from Seattle. They've been married for 10 years and have two children: Jesse, 9, and Anna, 7, who attend Duxbury public schools. Peter and his wife of nearly three years, Melinda, who grew up in Los Angeles, sold their Duxbury home last year and bought a house in West Tisbury on Martha's Vineyard. Their son, Bob, is 15 months old, and they're expecting a girl in August.

Indeed, there is a down-home, family atmosphere to the entire Farrelly operation. Although most of the Farrellys' staff is male, their scripts are scrupulously vetted by their wives, sisters, and mother, whose senses of humor the brothers admire. And each film includes cameo appearances by sisters, nieces, nephews, friends, and, of course, Mariann and Docky.

In There's Something About Mary, they played the couple who run Docky's Corndog Stand in Miami, serving corndogs to Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz. In Me, Myself & Irene, Mariann and her friends are the shocked ladies flashed by Jim Carrey at a train station. And Docky played a casino cashier in Kingpin.

The closing credits for Irene include a series of shots of friends and family, names included, who were cut or are barely seen in the film "because of time constraints." Peter says: "That's a nice way of saying they gave horrendous performances. But this way, at least they get seen."

Among the childhood friends of the Farrellys who now work in the business is Dan Murphy, whom the brothers have known since their teenage summers in New Seabury, where they all caddied and kept the greens at the golf club. On August 8, 1974 - the day President Nixon resigned - Peter and Murphy took off with some friends for an overnight sailing trip to the Vineyard. When they arrived, Murphy took a dive off a piling and broke his neck; he now uses a wheelchair. Murphy has acted in four of the Farrellys' movies, including as an FBI agent in Irene. He was also the prototype for the disabled kid brother in Outside Providence. (A few years ago, fellow Rhode Islander Michael Corrente picked a copy of Outside Providence off a remainders table at a bookstore and was so taken with it that he approached Peter Farrelly, who "sold" the film rights to him for a buck. Corrente directed it; the brothers produced it.)

"I know it sounds canned, but it's true: Everyone loves working with them," says Murphy, who grew up in Jamaica Plain. "They don't have any of the Hollywood pretentiousness, the ego stuff, the power trips, that happen on other sets."

School chum Michael Cerrone was helping run a family car dealership in Attleboro before joining the Farrellys. He co-wrote Irene and plays a bad cop who has a close encounter with a chicken. Mark Charpentier, who grew up with the boys, left his family's flooring business to work with them. He is the coproducer of Irene. Kris Meyer of North Quincy, who graduated from Boston College High School, is their right-hand man; he's an associate producer of Irene.

The Farrellys have also featured Boston comedians Steve Sweeney, Lenny Clark, Jackie Flynn, and Kevin Flynn in their movies. And then there is their tradition of auctioning off a small part for a good cause, like the Cam Neely House for cancer patients at the New England Medical Center.

There is also considerable local flavor to the movies, which the brothers insist be filmed in New England. "It's something we feel very strongly about," says Peter. Irene, for instance, was shot in Burlington and Middlebury, Vermont, and in Newport, Rhode Island. In one scene, a local cries, "I'm in a wicked rush!"

Additionally, the Farrellys always hold a premiere in Rhode Island. Dumb and Dumber premiered in Warwick. "It was all we could get at the time," says Bobby. By Kingpin, they had worked their way up to Newport. Irene's premiere will be in Providence on Tuesday.

But the business does force them to spend some time in Santa Monica, where Peter has an apartment. His family came and stayed with him during the final months of Irene; Bobby's children had to stay back east to finish school, so he phoned them every evening to say goodnight, and he commuted home on weekends.

"Once my kids got in school, I really wanted to go back home," says Bobby. "It's a one-industry town here. Everyone's life revolves around the movies." Adds Peter: "It's a better life back home. It's way prettier. This place is a desert." He pauses. "But what it's really about is the people."

Ask them more about the lure of New England, and Peter takes out a copy of his 1998 novel, The Comedy Writer. It's about a guy in a dead-end job in Boston who moves to Los Angeles to try to make it in the movies and eventually heads home. Flipping to the end, Peter Farrelly reads aloud: "The Red Sox eked their way into the postseason in the fall of 1990, and I walked to all the home playoff games from my studio apartment in the Back Bay. I enjoyed it when the weather turned cold again. I didn't like hot winters. I didn't like places where I had to stop and think about what month it was. I was glad to be around my parents, and my brothers and sisters and friends. I liked living in a place where summer meant something. I'd missed the leaves and cranberry bogs. I'd missed meeting pretty girls who weren't automatically models. I'd missed Mike Barnicle. Hollywood moguls come and go, and someday I'd be lying on my deathbed, facing the void, and I was a blessed man because I knew the truth is there is a God, and that everything means something." This time, there is no punch line.

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