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Not to worry. There's no DNA hair gel in "Outside Providence." That three-legged dog we see in the opening scene helping a boy in a wheelchair deliver papers doesn't wind up, at the end, in a full body cast. He's just a three-legged dog. And his master is just the very lovable little brother of the movie's hero.

Yes, the names on the script are the Farrelly Brothers, the uncrowned kings of gross-out comedy, the fellows whose "Dumb and Dumber" and "There's Something About Mary" have probably earned enough in box office and video rentals to get the Russian treasury out of hock. And yes, some of the more creative ads for the film announce, "There once was a boy from Pawtucket ..."

As I said, not to worry. Bobby and Peter Farrelly aren't on a mission to transform American film comedy into one long emission joke. In fact, if the Peter Farrelly novel that the movie is based on is any indication -- and is as autobiographical as it seems to be -- they are a couple of reformed stoners with sentimental hearts and a solid, if wry, respect for their conservative, blue-collar origins.

Which is another way of saying that "Outside Providence" is a funny movie and a sweet one, too, with a bit more in common with, say, "Good Will Hunting" than "Dumb and Dumber." If you put me up on a witness stand and swore me to tell the truth and nothing but, I'd say this is the movie that the misbegotten critics' darling "Rushmore" probably should have been. It's so likable it's almost lovable. (I cannot tell a lie. I almost gave it four stars.)

As coming-of-age movies have been since George Lucas' "American Graffiti," it's set not in a historic time period but inside a pop musical envelope -- in this case, Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," disco, the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," the Eagles' "Take It Easy." For those who insist on a chronological reference point, it's 1974.

Tim Dunphy (Shawn Hatosy) is a dedicated stoner devoted to the joys of ale and weed and having the IQ of Mazola oil. His blue-collar dad (Alec Baldwin) has little, if any, patience with him. So, in a foundering young life of testing adult limits, he goes to a disco with his buds, gets mildly hammered and plows his car into a parked police car.

Not a good thing to do, that -- not in any city on earth or any era, either. Out of such events, one can sometimes get a startlingly clear view of reality. (To paraphrase Samuel Johnson's old wisecrack, there's nothing like the sight of a blue uniform to concentrate the mind.)

In an inspired moment of creative mercy, the judge on the case declines to throw the book at him, preferring instead to arrange financing to send the kid out of town to Cornwall, a very fancy prep school.

You'd think, then, no fish out of water could possibly flop more pathetically on the dock. With his head made out of concrete and his life spent amid people who worry that wearing a beard "makes you queer," Tim, you'd think, would be in for some very tough times in a school full of smart, sophisticated rich kids in blazers.

Not to worry. (It ought to be the Brothers Farrelly motto.)

In very little time, in fact, Tim is one of the most popular guys in school. He's undeniably and cheerfully dumb, which is always appealing. He loves weed and rule-breaking as much as some of the rich brats do. And most important of all, his hard, working-class origins give him solid virtues that look even better surrounded by a lot of overbred smarty-pants: honor, loyalty, generosity, self-sacrifice.

He may not know a whole lot, and his clothes may mark him indelibly as one who doesn't have the proper costuming for coolness, but his stubborn, innate decency and engagingly modest self-appraisal put him in everyone's good books quickly.

Besides, in any congregation of the hopelessly immature anywhere, any survivor of a brush with the law always has a certain amount of phony cachet.

Tim, against all previous odds, grows up, slowly but unmistakably. He still does a lot of weed with Cornwall's stoners -- and gets in trouble again. But he finds a girlfriend, a lovely willowy rich girl who's just a few final A's from going to Brown. In fact, she's one of the school's queens, a prize catch for any kid under hormonal siege.

Just how dumb Tim really is, is put to the test. So is just how good a guy he is. And how responsible. The answers hold no surprise and you'll be happy they don't in this case.

Best of all about the movie, frankly, is that it gives AlecBaldwin one of the best roles he has had in several years. As Tim's irascible, loving but insensitive father, he's just a guy doing his best to raise two sons without a wife. "It ain't easy being an Ozzie without a Harriet," he snarls in a Rhode Island accent thick as a woonsocket.

His paternal sensibilities are mostly of the poker-game-and-gin-mill variety, but like his slug-brained son, his heart is usually in the right place (or, at least, it knows when it's in the right vicinity).

The Farrellys could no doubt have made a lot more money following their glands and their gifts for gut-busting outrage.

It never hurts to do one from the heart, I say.

Outside Providence
Rating: *** 1/2
Blue-collar stoner goes to school with snobs in blue blazers. Starring Alec Baldwin, Shawn Hatosy, George Wendt and Amy Smart. Written by Peter and Bobby Farrelly and Michael Corrente; directed by Corrente.
Rated R, playing in area theaters.

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