This article was corrected on June 13, 2003.
In the not-so-grand tradition of “Butch and Sundance: The Early Years” and “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas,” “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd” tries to milk more cheddar from a B.O. cash cow by spinning the backstories of characters originally played by older, better-known and, presumably, better-paid thesps. In this case, newcomers Eric Christian Olsen and Derek Richardson are teen versions of the dim bulbs originally essayed by Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in the imbecilic but amazingly popular 1994 comedy that marked the co-directorial debut of Peter and Bobby Farrelly. Fitfully amusing prequel stands to post fair to middling summer box office numbers, if only because previous pic — which also inspired a mid-’90s TV cartoon show — remains a familiar brand thanks to constant homevid and cable exposure.
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Urge to make lightning strike twice was irresistible to producers mindful of the 1994 comedy’s $248 million worldwide gross. Director Troy Miller, working from a script he co-wrote with Robert Brener, does relatively little to tinker with the Farrelly brothers’ successful formula. Indeed, a few of prequel’s comic set pieces — including a gross-out sight gag in a bathroom and a wink-wink, nudge-nudge ironic ending — are smudged carbons of similar scenes in “Dumb and Dumber.”
Unfortunately, conspicuous absence of Carrey and Daniels only serves to reinforce new pic’s overall resemblance to a down-market, penny-pinched sitcom spin-off (or, worse, direct-to-video follow-up). It probably doesn’t help that, judging from the credits, the Farrellys kept their distance.
Still, new lead players earn points for often uncanny accuracy of their mimicry. With almost frightening zeal, Olsen reprises Carrey’s chipped-tooth smile and Moe Howard coiffure as Lloyd Christmas, while Richardson, like Daniels, keeps his hair frizzy and his eyes glassy as Harry Dunne Both actors (especially Olsen) flawlessly replicate the body language and physical shtick of their predecessors.
Much like the ’94 comedy, “Dumb and Dumberer” relies heavily, if not exclusively, on gags that pivot on blissful ignorance, clueless misapprehensions and unadulterated stupidity of lead characters. (When Harry literally runs into Lloyd on the first day of high school, former assumes latter must be son of Santa Claus after he learns Lloyd’s last name.) Humor in prequel is slightly more restrained — i.e., less scatological — and not quite so dependent on borderline sadism.
Wispy plot involves scheme by a corrupt principal (Eugene Levy, picking up an easy paycheck) and his none-too-bright lover (Cheri Oteri) to claim a $100,000 grant by establishing a phony “special needs” class at their high school. Harry and Lloyd are selected as especially needy students, and they’re soon joined by “normal” classmates eager to scam their way into a stress-free, no-homework comfort zone.
It’s true, of course, that lowbrow, gross-out comedies of this sort traditionally wring laughs from subjects and situations that aren’t usually joked about in polite company. But gags about special needs programs (and special needs students) in a mainstream popcorn pic may be too much for even the most indulgent auds to accept. (At one point, a character actually starts to ask Harry if he’s “retarded,” but is too embarrassed to get the word out.) Don’t be surprised if there are picket lines at the megaplexes this week. Tech values are sufficient to passably evoke prequel’s 1986 time frame.