Friday, October 21, 2011

Not The Envy Of Many, Jack Black And Ben Stiller Flop In This Mediocre "Comedy"

The Good: Moments of humor
The Bad: One-note concept, Nothing extraordinary on the acting or character fronts, Light on DVD extras
The Basics: Short, populated by unenthusiastic or unreal performances and failing to explore genuinely (or sensibly) the titled emotion, Envy strikes out as largely unfunny.

It is only reason that makes watching Envy respect Steve Carell less instead of finding myself less impressed with Ben Stiller. I'm still looking into it, of course, but I suspect that Steve Carell was not such a big name back in 2004 when Envy was released to suggest that Ben Stiller essentially is playing Carell playing his part in the movie. But lacking that, it is hard not to suggest that Carell might have modeled much of his delivery off Stiller as throughout the film I was bugged by the familiarity of Stiller's performance up until the moment I realized that Stiller was acting just like Steve Carell. But no, I don't retroactively hate either Stiller or Carell for the weird synchronisity between their derivative deliveries in this and other works.

That said, what might well have gotten me more excited about Envy before I sat down and watched it was that Barry Levinson directed it. He is a decent director and writer and he directed Envy, a Jack Black/Ben Stiller vehicle which was easily one of the most misnamed films of the last ten years. Envy is not really about that and I watched the movie because it is one of my wife's favorite movies (while I was not a fan of the film, this is not a reason for divorce). It is, however, a film that is hard to write about because there is so little going for it that it stymies me to spend much time considering it.

Nick Vanderpark and Tim Dingman are best friends, who live opposite one another on the same street and carpool to their factory job where both appear to work in middle management. They are each happily married, with two children each and aspirations for the future. Tim is much more able to actualize his dreams as he is a down-to-earth guy slowly building his future. Nick, on the other hand, is a dreamer and he pitches one-line concepts to Tim about inventions that he wishes could exist. Witnessing a dog defecating on a lawn, Nick imagines a spray that would vaporize dog poop.

With just the idea and the name Va-poo-rize, Nick approaches the head of research and development at the company and soon they are moving forward on practical testing of the compound. Nick offers Tim the chance to invest $2000 on the project, which would make them equal partners. Tim refuses and Va-poo-rize actually works, making Nick filthy rich. Eighteen months after the successful test of Va-poo-rize, Tim is suffering as his marriage and work fall apart while Nick's mansion increases in size and sophistication and his wife decides to run for Congress (or State Senate). Tim meets a deranged extortionist, accidentally kills Nick's horse and struggles to reconcile his friendship with a man who is increasingly different from himself.

Envy isn't actually about envy, it's about regret. Actually, it is about failing to believe in one's friend. It's also about stupidly not asking the right questions in an investment opportunity and being cheesed off years later. Or perhaps it is about envy, but not a form I recognize in any rational way. After all, I tend to associate envy with the feeling of jealousy when things somewhat randomly go well for people, like the feeling one gets when the person ahead of them at the gas station wins big on the scratch off they were intending to buy. Or, I understand envy when one person is passed over for a promotion by someone equal or less capable than they are. Regret, on the other hand, is the more accurate emotion for what Tim (and Stiller) convey in this as Tim's marriage suffers from making a poor decision when Nick offers him the investment opportunity.

But the concept that Envy fails because of the friendship that is explicitly stated and portrayed only in material transfers is actually remarkably flimsy is an underexplored one. Tim does not believe in Nick. Outside of walking around saying "You're my best friend" the whole movie, there is little evidence of that other than the fact that Nick gives Tim a lot of stuff when he has the means. Tim doesn't believe in Nick and he is right that Nick (appears to) only has a name and an idea for his miracle product. The thing is, friends trust one another and they exchange information more freely than associates (at least in my experiences). Tim doesn't ask about the stage of development when Nick asks him to invest and Nick doesn't volunteer with any concrete, adult information to make him reasonably want to invest.

In other words, one of the big failures of Steve Adams' script is that neither friend actually responds to the other in a friendly way at the key moment. In fact, Tim barely seems to tolerate Nick even before the invention of Va-poo-rize and as a result, it was very difficult to get into the movie.

As well, I sat down to Envy, which was described on the DVD box as a "wacky and wild" comedy and found it to be neither. In fact, it was so straightforward it was almost droll. In the earliest parts of the movie, the only actually weird aspect was the attention Nick and Tim have to Tim's new chair and the association of office furniture with advancement in the company. Other than that, the film's leads are seldom funny. Indeed, Amy Poehler's comic timing upstages Stiller in virtually all of the scenes they share when Poehler is actually given a part.

Envy is populated by people with talent who seem unable or unwilling to use it in this endeavor. Christopher Walken is indescribably bad as the strung out J-Man. I wish I could describe it, but he seems like he is revisiting his part of Shrek from Batman Returns (reviewed here!) and then trying to make it more overtly funny. He fails. As well, Rachel Weisz is stiff and terribly un-funny in the role of Debbie, Tim's wife. In fact, "painfully stiff" might be the best way to describe her acting here.

But the real problem - outside the friendship never seeming terribly friendly - between Tim and Nick is that neither one seems terribly interesting or noteworthy to begin with. The film is predictable - the moment the dead horse is seen atop Tim's minivan, the viewer can pretty much figure it will fall off before it reaches its destination - and Tim is a boring protagonist. The film follows him rejecting Nick's idea and then dealing with the changes a year and a half later. To truly explore envy, the movie should have eroded Tim over the months in between as Nick became exponentially more wealthy. After all, it is easy to regret the decision when one sees the effect, but most of Tim's misadventures occur because of angry accidents (shooting the horse, yelling at his boss, etc.) as opposed to actual feelings of envy.

Had the film instead illustrated Tim struggling toward his goals as Nick renovated and acquired, it would be much easier to see him and the concept of envy. Instead, the leap ahead makes it seem more pointless; Tim made a bad decision, but he is not so much envious of the mind behind the decision or even its most extreme effects, he is bugged by his own regret.

The result is that Envy is ninety-nine minutes of (mostly) Ben Stiller wandering on the screen while Jack Black walks around flashy things. Stiller's Tim is not one of his most distinctive characters and is hardly a distinctive performance. As for Jack Black, this is hardly like his character in Shallow Hal which might have been another one-line concept film, but Black actually had a part in it that required him to act. Hal is shallow and deep, a womanizer, then genuine and nice. Black had some acting to do. As Nick, Black shows up, restrains himself from any yelling and delivers his lines. The part is not clever or silly or interesting and there are parts where Black delivers his lines flatly, with little actual charisma. And hey, if you're casting Jack Black and not using him for his charisma, one has to wonder why you are bothering.

And after watching Envy, I'm not sure why I bothered. At least I can envy those who choose to spend their time on another film and not on this one.

For other films featuring Ben Stiller, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Royal Tenenbaums


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment