Comparing Masterpieces: Dumb and Dumber VS. War and Peace

In the upper stratosphere of perfect art no two masterpieces are alike. Each bears the original imprint of its creator and demonstrates his hitherto unseen genius to the world.

Tolstoy’s War and Peace was hailed by critics as “a rollicking historical novel written for that amorphic and limp creature, ‘the general reader,’ and more specifically the young,” On the other hand, the Farrelly brothers also really knocked Dumb and Dumber out of the park.

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The two classics of world culture, both based on true stories, are founded on the same philosophical view regarding history, and this is embedded into the core of both works. Only the structural approach of each work is different, allowing the writers different vantage points to expound on similar ideas about things, like the relativity of our inner-clocks and inner-spatial awareness. Their plots support a shared philosophical contention.

History to Tolstoy and the Farrelly’s is an inexorable process with too many indiscernible moving parts for any single person to influence, no matter how large a role that person is said to have had in shaping it. Rather, the confluence of all the surrounding events and incidents, from the smallest to the largest, compile in incomprehensible ways to shape the individual’s life. In this way, the surprising conclusion is that Napoleon had nothing to do with the Napoleonic wars, or, rather, only as much as everyone else. They had to happen. “To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, minister, and generals, and study the common infinitesimally small elements by which masses are moved.” (Maude translation, pg. 653.)

Tolstoy’s frequent and barely masked intrusions into the work are the structural feature which make this “novel” what James (Henry James, not E.L.) called a “loose baggy monster,” and not strictly a novel. It’s refusal to adhere to traditional forms, its naked plain-spoken historical digressions, is one of its defining features.

Comparatively, while Dumb and Dumber also demonstrates how history is just an inexorable process, it is a much more tightly constructed, taut narrative. A more modern work, the Farrelly’s are not granted the same ability to just jump in front of the camera to make unmasked declarations about their views. A quick examination of selected scenes exposes the Farrelly’s stamp in portraying what is essentially Tolstoy’s philosophy.

Pic via The Books Guide (Click to open in new tab)
Pic via The Books Guide (Click to open in new tab)

Like all epics from Homer to Vergil, Dumb and Dumber begins in medias res. (Incidentally, one night in his study Tolstoy read Pushkin and, after admiring how immediately he felt thrust into the story, Leo got a pad of paper and began writing about the tumultuous Oblonsky family). When looking back on the action of the film it may seem like only one incident (Lloyd trying to return the briefcase that Mary intentionally drops at the airport) initiated the ensuing scenes. But no, remember Tolstoy’s theory: too many minute and infinitely small incidents had to happen (to Lloyd, Harry, Mary, Nicholas, et cetera) for that one event to take place. We can sit here all day and say things like the action of the movie wouldn’t have happened if Lloyd didn’t notice Mary drop the briefcase in the first place. Or how Harry Dunne couldn’t have gone on the trip at all if, like one pathetic loser, he didn’t get fired after covering Miss Neugeboren’s newly groomed pooches in the back of his shaggin’ waggin with ketchup and mustard before a show.

Like in War and Peace, we are not to suppose that there’s a divine hand in any of this necessarily, just that things can’t be any other way. The moving parts can’t help but interact with each other, and in this way cause what appears to be a coherent, almost consciously scripted narrative to emerge when looking in hindsight; hindsight being the default perspective of all historians. Dumb and Dumber, like in War and Peace, reminds us that the goal of the historian is to purge himself of this simplistic notion. This is the real essence of Dumb and Dumber.

The passage of time, both how the consumer of the art perceives this passage and how the characters inside these inner worlds have time affect them, is also dealt with masterfully in both works. Tolstoy’s form allows him to speak directly about how much time has passed and how the changing of certain conditions has affected various characters. His personal intrusions are part of the fabric of the world he establishes. For example, he says plainly how Pierre no longer brims with hope and goodwill months after becoming a freemason, but becomes despondent and unfulfilled after seeing their lofty ideals fail in practice. Dumb and Dumber takes on a different form, and though it doesn’t have a comparable incident on the level of plot it deals directly with time in incidents often overlooked. (Sadly overlooked too: humor in art is mistakenly seen to exist only for empty chuckles, but in Dumb and Dumber we see a profundity unrivalled in modern art).

Pic via Wikia (Click to open in new tab)
Pic via Wikia (Click to open in new tab)

At the outset of their journey, Lloyd sits in the passenger seat of the van while it’s speeding down the highway, pretending to jog on the spot as he watches the scenery rush past him through the window. “It feels like you’re running at an incredible rate, Harry!” Of course, once we’re through laughing we’ll see this is the Farrelly’s subtle way (in contrast to Tolstoy’s direct intrusion) of portraying the subjectivity of inner-time and inner-space.

In other words, the relativity embedded in our ineluctable precondition to the visible and cerebral modality of perception. No two people perceive the same passage of time or space equally—not just its content, but its very texture is different. The space-time discrepancy is highlighted elsewhere in the movie: “According to the map, we’ve only gone four inches.” It’s couched in simplistic amusing terms, but the Farrelly’s are getting at the deeper thing here. Their achievement is in conveying this deftly, but without Tolstoy’s blunt, intrusive, heavy hand.

The disparate success of Harry and Lloyd versus Napoleon is the best evidence that history is too vast a force to be shaped by a single mind. Even though the latter is frequently termed a genius and Harry and Lloyd’s intelligence is less often praised, Harry and Lloyd fare much better than Napoleon. Once Napoleon’s troops burn down an abandoned Moscow they find themselves largely with nothing to do, and return West during a Russian winter in a hostile country sorely lacking basic provisions.

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Pic via SomeWorthiwhileQuotes (Click to open in new tab)

Comparatively, Harry and Lloyd make it across their own country with relative ease in winter months despite going a third of the way in the wrong direction. And, unlike Napoleon’s unequipped army who ate the meat of their own horses then crept inside the dead animals to keep warm, Lloyd thought it prudent to bring an extra pair of gloves. Lloyd points out how obvious it is to ensure supply lines are managed at all times in dire conditions, something Napoleon neglects: “Well, ya…we’re in the Rockies.” We can easily imagine Napoleon standing in Harry Dunne’s place, fingers numb with cold, while Lloyd Christmas shakes his head at him, laughingly dismissing the French Emperor Bonaparte as a hopeless idiot.

Indeed, Napoleon’s army withers and dies in freezing conditions whereas Harry and Lloyd thrive in a winter setting, leisurely sipping beers in a classy heart-shaped hot tub before graduating to a hotel suite once occupied by royalty. Unlike Napoleon’s troops, who have no use for the wealth they find in abandoned Moscow, Harry and Lloyd immediately parlay their newfound wealth to plug themselves into the social pipeline. Napoleon’s troops look dejected, decrepit, malnourished, and die in huge numbers along the way. Harry and Lloyd look like sophisticated mega-babes. And, they’re led to meaningful interpersonal encounters with Mary, the woman they both love; during skiing and snowball fighting Mary touches Harry’s leg, while later Lloyd’s heart fills with gratitude when Mary tells him there’s a chance that a guy like her might end up with a girl like him.

In the end, the duo both restores order in what had been Mary’s broken life and also ensure the villains are put behind bars (except for Joey Mentalino, who they inadvertently kill by getting him to eat his own rat poison, and the menacing Sea Bass, who Harry accidentally smashes in the head just before he sodomizes his friend in the stall of a public bathroom). Perhaps the French troops would have done better if they were led by Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas instead of Napoleon.

Still, by any objective measure we must conclude that Napoleon would score higher on an IQ test (as faulty as those tests are) than Harry and Lloyd. So, how else to account for their varying degrees of success but to say that history isn’t shaped by one or two people but by a confluence of innumerable events which can’t really be added together since at no point can they be disconnected from preceding and subsequent ones? Therefore, even if the French army was led by Harry and Lloyd, they’d have fared no better. At the core, even though their art is structurally quite different, both the Farrellys and Tolstoy point to this one truth.

About Jeff Halperin

Jeff Halperin was a city hall reporter at the Toronto Standard, but his writing has also appeared at Maclean's, the Grid and elsewhere. He also writes on literature, Leafs, music, chess and more. Jeff's website is [here] For other PP posts by Jeff click [here]