It’s been almost 20 years to the day since Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) first hit theaters in Dumb and Dumber. (Naturally, we’re ignoring the ill-conceived prequel Dumb and Dumberer: How Harry Met Lloyd.) The original film marked the third leg of Jim Carrey’s historic 1994 (a year that also included Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask), made the Farrelly Brothers legitimate comedy forces for nearly a decade, and became the most annoyingly over-quoted comedy until Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.
After two decades, most of the gang is returning to the well with Dumb and Dumber To. But will audiences join them?
Following up an old film after an extended length of time is always a risky proposition. While the question of, “Does anyone care anymore?” is a natural concern, the bigger problem tends to be the way that filmmakers lose sight of why anyone cared in the first place. Making a sequel a decade (or more) later often leads to a disconnect between the filmmaker, the original film, and the sequel. Modern filmmaking trends not being conducive to the tone of the original, an overall lack of original ideas, the uncomfortable sense of the cheap cash grab, and even the simple realities of aging all contribute to why decade-plus sequels almost always come across as something worse than disappointing.
One of the most dangerous symptoms of these ventures is trying to fulfill audience expectations by reducing the sequel to a “Greatest Hits” of the original film. Repeating the same jokes or lines or imagery that made the original spin is definitely a useful tactic for playing on nostalgia (and for a film like Dumb and Dumber To, nostalgia is its biggest selling point), but when you don’t add anything new, the sequel only serves to cheapen the original while being a bad argument for its own existence. Take 2013’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, the sequel to 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy for instance. While the chemistry between the cast was still strong, the film was unable to produce new memorable moments because it relied too much on earlier gags (e.g. the News Team War) and lacked a strong focus, seemingly believing that what was important was spending time with News Team Four in what mostly amounted to a series of loosely connected comedy vignettes.
One of the biggest recent offenders of sequelitis was 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, released 23 years after Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko first graced our screens and won Michael Douglas an Academy Award for Best Lead Actor. While the 1987 original had something to say about society in the 1980’s, the corrupting nature of greed, and how even redemption comes with a price, the sequel had nothing much to say at all. It should have been a bad sign when Money Never Sleeps opened with Gekko collecting his belongings upon leaving prison, and the camera lingers on his giant 1980’s cell phone so that the audience gets a cheap laugh about how technology used to be different. It should have been a worse sign when this moment showed up in the trailer.
To say that Money Never Sleeps had only a surface understanding of the first film is an understatement. All it seemed to know about anything (the original movie, the transition to/facade of greater corporate social responsibility, the 2000s economic climate (despite the 2008 stock market crash being a minor plot point), anything) was the basic image of 1980s icon Gekko. As is the downfall of many sequels, the breakout character from the first film, namely Gekko, gets even more attention while losing his edge. (Think Stifler from the American Pie movies). Any of Gekko’s character subtleties (and there weren’t many, even originally) or depth of passion was abandoned in favor of three piece suits, cigars, and of course, parroting the catch phrase, “Greed is Good.” (Or, in modern parlance, #GreedIsGood.)
Even though the film keeps him as a minor character for around the first 2/3 of the movie, writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff (replacing the original’s Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone, although Stone returned to direct) bizarrely force an additional half hour onto their hackneyed script (the type that succumbs to the poor writer’s standby of, “Family Is Important,” when trying to explain any character motivation) just so he gets more showtime – which amounts to a needless heel turn (after all, he was the villain in the first one) and last minute reversal (after all, he’s the star and we need a happy ending).
The film’s entire personality (and the entire concept of playing to the audience rather than the story) can perhaps best be personified by a single scene less than a minute long that takes place about halfway into it. At a party, Gekko runs into Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen). Fox, who was actually the main character of the first film, was the young stockbroker whose soul was caught between the ritzy allure of Gekko and the honest, blue collar earnestness of his father, Carl (Martin Sheen). At the end of the original film, Fox tapes Gekko revealing his insider trading shenanigans for the feds, but he has gone too far into the dark side and will also face prison time. It’s his tragic downfall that provides the original Wall Street with its emotional core.
When we meet up with Fox two decades down the line, it’s no longer Bud Fox but Charlie “Winning!” Sheen – drunk, with two ladies on either arm. Could this moment have been used to make a statement about something - the addictive nature of money and power, how people will look past your misdeeds if you continue making money, once a con artist always a con artist? Sure. But did it? Nope. It was just “Hey kids, it’s Charlie “Tiger Blood” Sheen!” (Applause.)
While Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps capitalized on its connection to the past (or at least the parts of its past that the general public vaguely remembers), Clerks II went the opposite route, and in doing so also lost its soul. Low budget, gritty, and pretty much all dialogue, 1994’s Clerks became one of the definitive films of the early 1990’s and of Generation X ennui. When Dante and Randall returned in 2006, everything had changed. Gone was the black and white world of existentialist dread, replaced with a colorful universe of dance sequences and donkey shows.
The power of Clerks came in its authenticity – the dialogue, the concerns, and the relationships. It had the distinctive voice of someone who understood the day-to-day drudgery of the working world while trying to find his way in life. With Clerks II, it felt like Kevin Smith had never worked an “average job” a day in his life. The mostly realistic feel of the original film had now become something cartoony, but disappointingly without the inspired lunacy of Clerks: The Animated Series. The dialogue was softer, it became harder to connect with the characters, and the pop culture arguments lacked the “actual discussion” punchiness that made Clerks so iconic.
Unlike Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which had the hollow quality of a passionless cash grab but at least had a tone somewhat similar to the original, Clerks II felt like it came from Kevin Smith, but it was understandably a much different Kevin Smith. The guy who had to sell all his comic books for funding became the guy writing comic books for Marvel and DC. But that ended up being a negative thing. While the ending of Dante and Randall returning to the QuickStop and RST was symbolic of Smith’s own wistful return to old times and glory days, it also cheapened the point of the original film – where you are in your early/mid-20s is not where you will be for the rest of your life, it’s just (or at least should just be) a stepping stone. With Clerks II, the, “It’s just another day,” ending of Clerks is replaced with the theme of, “Clutch desperately onto your past.” It would be nice to hope that Clerks III returns to the honesty of the original, but considering Kevin Smith’s latest offerings and podcast personality, it’s difficult to imagine.
To be fair, sometimes the decade-plus sequel works. It’s painfully rare, but Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy (consisting of 1995’s Before Sunset, 2004’s Before Sunrise, and 2013’s Before Midnight) is the prime example of the benefits of this approach. Following the ongoing love story between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy), this series checks in on them every decade or so. These films succeed because Richard Linklater has never lost focus of the characters. Unlike Gekko, who becomes even more of a caricature in the second go around, or Dante/Randall who become even bigger clowns, Linklater understands on a deeper level the changes that age brings to people and to their relationships (an idea he also explored in Boyhood this year). While time became a hindrance for Kevin Smith, it ends up being a boon for Linklater, who appreciates his creations as living breathing people who grow and change with him instead of merely seeing them as representative of an earlier time in his life.
So where will Dumb and Dumber To fall? Definitely more of a farce than any of the aforementioned film pairs (more than Clerks II or even the Anchorman films), it’s unlikely to buck the trend. Watching people long past their prime doing physical comedy more often comes across as sad than funny (watch any of the latter day Three Stooges adventures for proof). And most juvenile/gross-out comedy sequels already rely too heavily on the jokes and punchlines people know rather than trying new things, a death knell for most movies, let alone sequels two decades late.
The comedy film scene has changed a lot in the past 20 years – more adult, darker humor, a percentage of every cast needing to be Apatow-approved. Maybe Dumb and Dumber To, with its lack of pretension, will be a welcome reprieve. Or maybe we’ll be covering our eyes in embarrassment as middle-aged men in horrible tuxedos plead desperately with the audience for laughs by saying, “I like it, I like it a lot,” while driving a car made up to look like a dog.