Compared to Mary, or with the Farrellys' equally profitable 1994 valentine to blockheads, Dumb and Dumber, Outside Providence is a subdued piece of business indeed. Adapted from Peter Farrelly's 1988 novel of the same name -- his first book -- it's the surprisingly tender and resolutely un-postmodern tale of a rudderless, blue-collar teen who has to grow up in a hurry when he's shipped off to spend his senior year at a tweedy New England prep school. Young Tim Dunphy has crashed into a police car, and Dad isn't happy about it.
Tim's traumas are pretty familiar, especially in a time when every third movie is about teenage angst: He's looking for love, a little guidance, and an occasional hit of pot. Luckily, the beleaguered Dunph, a son of grimy Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is also full of the old Farrelly mischief. The brothers' famous gift for joining rude comic aggression with sweet innocence is again at play, and their fresh-faced star, Shawn Hatosy (The Faculty, In & Out), is ideally cast as a streetwise smart-mouth who can also be lovably baffled by, say, the actual location of Arizona. Whether he's swilling beer and cursing fate with his slacker friends in Pawtucket or trying to evade the authorities at his new boarding school, he's one of the most appealing teen heroes of the moment -- a moment that is vastly overpopulated with teen heroes.
It doesn't hurt that the Farrellys and director Michael Corrente (American Buffalo), who collaborated on the screenplay, have front-loaded Providence with a touch of sentiment Charles Dickens might have endorsed and a brand of nostalgia you might not expect from the wisecracking brothers. For one thing, the story is set in the mists of 1974. For another, Our Dunph comes equipped with a crippled younger brother (Tommy Bone), a three-legged dog, and a snarling bigot of a father (Alec Baldwin) who can't find a way to love him. Mom is out of the picture altogether -- up in the cemetery.
In book and movie, though, author Peter Farrelly is constitutionally determined to keep the humor sharp and the sap flow under control. Dunph never pities his brother, or himself (it's one of the reasons we like him), and even the obligatory father-tries-to-reach-boy scene, in which the unshaven ogre stops calling his son "dildo" and "assbag" long enough to show him how to knot his tie, has just the right throwaway quality.
Meanwhile, the prep school stuff is classic, which is to say it's about one golden autumn afternoon short of cliché. Leafy Cornwall Academy -- Cornhole Academy to the inmates -- is furnished with the same array of snobs, nerds, jocks and crypto-fascist teachers we've met in every example of the genre from A Separate Peace to Dead Poets Society. And Tim Dunphy is the kind of sensitive outsider Americans have cherished since Holden Caulfield discovered that grown-ups are phonies.
Dunph arrives at Cornwall with his clothes in a black plastic garbage bag and soon discovers that math class has him outclassed. But the boy has resources. It takes him about half an hour to root out the pot smokers in the bushes, two days to set his sights on the coolest blonde (Amy Smart) from the neighboring girls' school, and a couple of weeks to outwit the resident dictator. His name is Mr. Funderburk (played thanklessly by Tim Crowe) and the kids all call him -- what else? -- Thunderturd.
Repeat viewers of There's Something About Mary may be hoping for more frontal assaults on their sense and sensibility, but Outside Providence comes up a little short in that department. Still, it does contain a couple of screechingly funny bits that reveal the Farrelly style at its most pointed. A very proper prep school dean reads aloud a wonderfully illiterate, surpassingly obscene letter sent to Dunph by his hometown pal Drugs Delaney (Jon Abrahams). The teenage hoax by which the hero's hopelessly geeky roommate, Jizz (Jack Ferver), has earned his nickname is replayed in detail. And if you're looking for drugs, booze and barfing, you'll get your share.
But what's this? By the end of this comparatively genteel paean to vanished youth, the nihilistic Brothers Farrelly wind up promoting good study habits, loyalty in friendship, and proper grooming. Young Dunph not only comes of age and learns a couple of things about love and death, he also starts thinking about a career. These moviemakers, who have elsewhere made a virtue of buffoonery and a black joke out of serial murder, come this close, by the time we're done, to cheerleading for high SAT scores and mature thought processes.
However, lest true believers worry that the Farrellys have lost their instinct for the jugular or -- horror of horrors -- begun to grow up, rest assured that among their several works-in-progress these days is something called Stuck on You -- billed as a comedy about Siamese twins.