14 JUNE 2003, Page 78

Running gags

Mark Steyn

A Guy Thing (124 selected cinemas)

Idon't believe this column has ever discussed the vital cinematic question of

the diarrhoea gag perhaps back in Graham Greene's day, or Peter Ackroyd's, but certainly not recently. But the release this week of the sequel to Dumb and Dumber, Dumb and Dumberer, provides an opportunity. The first film, you'll recall, features Jeff Daniels in a classic diarrhoea scene. Jim Carrey, jealous that Daniels has scored a date with the girl they're both crazy for, spikes his drink beforehand. The swain is stricken while collecting Lauren Holly from her home and asks if he can use the bathroom to wash his hands. He makes the toilet just in time and the monumental evacuation is capped by a great visual gag of Daniels not just sitting on the thing but sucked halfway down, his knees hanging over the edge and a look of total exhaustion and stunned bewilderment on his face. At that point, Miss Holly knocks on the door and says not to use the toilet in there because the flush isn't working.

That's a diarrhoea scene.

En A Guy Thing, the diarrhoea seems, paradoxically, forced. Paul is having a had week. A quiet respectable fellow, he woke up after his stag night to find himself in bed with a grass-skirted dancer from the party. Imagine his surprise a few days later when he shows up for dinner with his soon-to-be in-laws and his fiancée's leading him across the room to introduce him to her cousin and he looks over at her and realises, oh my God, it's the hula girl from the stag night. So what does he do? He bolts upstairs, shuts the bathroom door, tells his fiancée he's got diarrhoea, and spends the entire evening in there, as his in-laws-to-be huddle round the keyhole demanding to know how it's going and offering him tips. He can get the runs but he can't hide. So he attempts some plausible sound effects by noisily squirting the shampoo bottle down the bowl.

Hmm. What's wrong with this scene? First of all, it may theoretically be possible to create a scene in which someone fakes diarrhoea that's as funny as a scene in which someone actually has diarrhoea. Maybe. But not if the premise of the gag is an occasion of social embarrassment. Generally speaking, a pussywhipped schlump trying to make a good impression on his control-freak girlfriend's upscale parents does not attempt to avoid embar rassment by faking noisy bowel movements and making them the central event of the evening.

Secondly. what's he running from? To find oneself in the same room as a couple of sexual partners can be potentially awkward. But in this case the fiancée doesn't know he's slept with her cousin. And the cousin, though unaware they're related, already knows Paul is engaged, because when she woke up in his bed, he told her his betrothed was on her way round and hustled her out without her panties, and she was very cool and rather droll about the whole business. The diarrhoea gambit lacks motivation. It doesn't pass the smell test.

If that dying-is-easy-comedy-is-hard line means anything, it's that comedy is brutally unforgiving of the inauthentic. And everything in A Guy Thing is slightly off. A typical example: when they break in to the hula girl's psycho ex-boyfriend's pad, she has a key to the apartment but not to the apartment house itself. Really? Generally the flat key and the lobby key are on the same ring. The whole wobbly structure's constructed out of the slenderest matchsticks. A chap who's embarrassed to ask the pharmacy clerk where he keeps the stuff for crabs isn't then going to ask him how you apply it. A Guy Thing is written by Greg Glienna, whose last film Meet the Parents roamed the same territory — inse cure nebbish put through the wringer on the eve of marriage — with a somewhat sharper focus. You have the vague feeling this was an earlier test run for Meet the Parents that got dusted off and rushed into production after the first flick clicked. But in Ben Stiller Parents had the perfect actor for these roles. Here, aside from Selma Blair playing for the umpteenth time the uptight preppy girlfriend who gets slung over for something livelier and James Brolin as the father-in-law with the macho squint, the main roles are hopelessly miscast. If Guy Thing has a message, it's in the rock'n'roll version of 'Born Free' that, due to a booking error, winds up as the wedding march for Paul's trip to the altar. Nothing wrong with 'Born Free' — the first British song to win an Oscar, for John Barry and Don Black — and its lyric is certainly pertinent — 'You're free as the roaring tide/So there's no need to hide'. But, if you want a put-upon schnook who's liberated by love, Jason Lee is not that guy. A superb slacker sidekick for the Kevin Smith demographic, Lee makes a transition to mainstream romantic leading man that sucks more life out of him than Jim Carrey's lethal laxative did out of Jeff Daniels. Something about the beady eyes and Bob Hope nostrils makes him unsuited for the character, and sticking him in a lot of ghastly sweaters makes him seem too old for most of the jokes. As his hula hottie, the hitherto luminous Julia Stiles turns in a flat performance that gives the impression she spent the shoot scanning the contract for the get-out clause. You never believe she's the free spirit who can set Mister Conformist free because she seems far more embarrassed, not just by the jokes but by the entire picture. Who can blame her? In real life, James Brolin is Mr Barbra Streisand and, if she accompanied him to the premiere, she must wonder what she and Ryan O'Neal did to deserve those notices for What's Up, Doc?