and Peter Farrelly

The biggest complaint about today’s action movies is that they’re like visual thrill rides, too loud, with heroes like action figures, every script much like every other despite new settings and other minor tweaks. Where are the iconic stars, the deathless dialogue, the human intelligence of the classics? But the film landscape wasn’t all Now, Voyager and The Philadelphia Story, these have always co-existed with thrilling, shallow action pictures based on television serials, which were in turn based on radio serials. They starred Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller, and they were awesome.

The Mask of Zorro has all the dash and goofy charm of the old adventure flicks, with the added benefits of a budget fit for a DeMille spectacle and dab modern hand at the explosives and other socko effects. The script, acting, and direction are dedicated without being corny, and the film never stoops to irony or postmodern self-awareness to help a cynical audience feel superior to the stuff it’s enjoying.

Like The Phantom, perhaps the only other recent film that captured this spirit, The Mask of Zorro is a job, not a man. It’s 19th-century California, and the light is perfect. The evil Spaniards are creeping up through Mexico, conquering right and left, about to oppress the Californian Mexicans and claim the region’s gold for Spain. History be damned, and plot, too, since it’s full of twist-ridden political goings-on that are easier to watch than explain, the Spaniard Don Diego turns against his government and fights for the oppressed peoples’ freedom, making a formidable enemy of the governor, Don Rafael Montero. Aristocrat, father, and husband by day, masked vigilante by night, this Zorro (Anthony Hopkins) is finally captured by Montero

and imprisoned.

The story uses every adventure-serial trick in the lexicon short of an amulet broken in two, although there is an actual amulet as well as its equivalent, a rare California flower. Twenty years later, the old Zorro happens upon a prime candidate for a new one, the feisty thief Alejandro Murrieta (Antonio Banderas). Together, Zorros young and old train, drink sherry, and dress up in baronial garb in preparation for showdowns with their enemies. In between, there’s Elena, a cat-eyed senorita who is Don Diego’s daughter, Don Rafael’s daughter, and Alejandro’s love interest (Catherine Zeta-Jones); tons of fabulous swordplay, much improved from the click-clack variety of Captain Blood; splendid Spanish courtyards and marketplaces; California sunsets; sweeping capes; elegant banter; and a tense soundtrack of flamenco footsteps articulating the action.

The film also has a sense of humor, when Zorro returns home to his family after a night of saving some people by killing lots of others, he tells his baby…Zorro stories! The beautifully edited action is as resourceful as the hero: See Alejandro ride two horses at once, backward, standing up; see Don Diego put out candle flames with his whip; see the sultry Elena cross swords wearing only her nightie. Watching The Mask of Zorro is like being 8 years old, wearing a cowboy hat and a pair of mail-order six-guns, sitting in front of the TV goggle-eyed waiting for William S. Hart to ride in and restore order to the lawless soundstage prairie.

The conclusion seems so obvious it’s staggering to think that we have to go over this, but for the future of frat-boy humor, let’s do this again: Dumb can be funny, gross can be funny, but bad is bad whatever its level.

The Farrelly brothers learned the first two parts of this axiom from the success of Dumb and Dumber and fine-tuned it with the subtler, wilder Kingpin. But their latest comedy, There’s Something About Mary, makes two inexplicable leaps in logic, that they must be ready to make a grown-up romantic comedy and that dumb and gross are intrinsically funny without having to be, like, good.

They’re the scatalogically minded imps with a jones for hipster tastefulness, hence the cast of sterling cool: Cameron Diaz as Mary, the goodhearted, gorgeous blonde and object of male affections that spin around her like loser planets orbiting the sun (was Gwyneth Paltrow busy?); Ben Stiller as Ted, a well-meaning oaf with the soul of a romantic lead; Matt Dillon as a sleazy private dick with an untrustworthy little mustache. Elfin rocker Jonathan Richman plays faux-naive Greek chorus to the slapstick whirlwind that is Mary’s love life, appearing in treetops, at hot dog stands, and on lonely beaches to sing a report of what we’ve just seen.

Like Mike Myers, Stiller seems to get off on morphing himself into a hapless grotesque, although without Myers’ tenderness. Not only is Ted a high school outcast who hangs with dopers and pizza-faces, but he grows up to be the kind of person whose therapist ducks out for lunch during his sessions. Obsessed with Mary’s heartbreaking smile ever since a disastrous prom date, he takes the advice of his pal, Dom (Chris Elliott), and hires a private detective to track her down. Already the plot is unworthily absurd; no one is loser enough to send Matt Dillon, even in greaseball guise, after the girl of his dreams. Whatever else they taught in that high school, the Miles Standish story apparently wasn’t in the curriculum.

The detective tracks Mary to South Beach and, using his arsenal of bugging devices, we’ve seen the same trick accomplished by different methods in Groundhog Day and Everyone Says I Love You, poses as a globe-trotting architect to win her over. Unbelievably, this ploy works, until a suspicious Ted shows up. While various liars, morons, and psychopaths vie for her affections, Mary, supposedly an orthopedic surgeon, remains as lovely and unreal as Botticelli’s Venus, she never goes to work, does the shopping, or spends a second thinking about anything but her love life. The script’s point is that these men have objectified Mary for their own selfish purposes, but the film treats her as a waxwork and a catalyst.

The slick, grown-up comedy that Something About Mary wants to be is not strong enough to withstand the mudslide of ickiness that hints that the Farrellys are trying to outdo themselves. The dialogue among women is like something a Martian would cobble together from a sheaf of censored notes. For a lazy surgeon, Mary sure has a spectacular apartment, and, fortunately for us, a penchant for undressing before open windows. And she knows so little about architecture that she isn’t even embarrassed to ask if something is art nouveau or art deco. A subplot involving Lee Evans as a polio-stricken architect is both improbable and horrible, and two major plot points are predicated on Three’s Company-style misunderstandings that could be cleared up by a word or two.

But that’s only what’s wrong with the plot; the incidentals are downright revolting. There’s unspeakable dog torture, retard humor, gimp humor, and so much infantile dirty-mindedness and sex horror it’s a wonder the Farrellys can pee without falling into paroxysms of guilt and giggles. But if you’ve ever fantasized about seeing Jeffrey Tambor in jockey shorts, here’s your chance.