Remember when the St. Louis Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV? If not, bear with me. Their high-powered offense lit up opposing teams all season during an inexorable march toward the championship. Professional sports pundits and armchair quarterbacks alike were predicting an NFL dynasty that might win championships for years. They were that good. Then, in 2000, they were bounced from the first round of the playoffs. They finished a decent 10-7, but it seemed like everyone had their number. Turns out maybe they weren’t that good after all.
The same could almost be said for the comedy careers of Ben Stiller and Jack Black after the release of their latest movie, “Envy.” Both actors made names for themselves early on – Stiller with “The Ben Stiller Show” and feature film turns in “Reality Bites” (which he directed), “The Cable Guy,” and There’s Something About Mary; Black with HBO’s “Mr. Show” and “Tenacious D,” and roles in High Fidelity, Shallow Hal and last year’s School of Rock. However, the honeymoon might just be over with “Envy,” Barry Levinson’s latest directorial effort. Black plays Nick Vanderpark, a daydreamer type who just happens to come up with a fantastically successful invention (“Vapoorize” – spray it on dog doo and it disappears), while Stiller is Tim Dingman, Nick’s – wait for it – uptight best friend and neighbor who comes to resent his buddy’s happiness.
Nick gives Tim an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of his invention. After Tim demurs, Nick goes on to make a fortune with Vapoorize and, because he wants to be close to his buddy, builds a palatial mansion in the same spot as his old, crappy house. Before long, Tim’s kids are asking to be served the flan they got at Nick’s place, Nick’s horse is wandering over to eat their apples, and Tim’s wife Debbie (Rachel Weisz) is growing increasingly unhappy with their marriage. If that wasn’t enough, Tim loses his job and teams up with a mysterious (and probably homeless) person known only as “J-Man” (Christopher Walken) to get revenge on Nick.
You’d think, at this point, that this would be the beginning of a series of Wile E. Coyote style misadventures in which Tim and the J-Man attempt to bring down Nick’s empire. Well, you’d be wrong. There’s really only one caper, resulting from an improbable drunken feat of archery performed by Tim, and even this devolves into a string of excruciating mishaps involving Tim’s attempt to cover his tracks.
The most telling symptom of bad comedy is pretty easy to diagnose: no laughs. This is readily apparent in “Envy,” as Stiller and Black sleepwalk through their respective roles. Black portrays a slightly more toned down/less profane (this is PG-13 after all) version of “Barry” from “High Fidelity,” while Ben Stiller continues the stammering, nebbishy buffoon act he’s had the chance to perfect in his last eight movies. Barry Levinson seems to be trapped in the 1970s when it comes to comedy. Jokes about chairs with lumbar support? A fifteen second gag involving Stiller fighting with his seat belt? Speeding up the film for “comic” effect? I was waiting for the seltzer bottles and spinning bowties. Comedy was never the man’s strong point, but Levinson seems to have miraculously made it through the Farrelly and Zucker friendly ‘90s with his glacial sense of timing intact. Writer Steve Adams (whose only other credit I could find was for the 1980’s TV show “Fridays”) also commits what I like to call the “Aaron Sorkin foul,” i.e. having characters repeat each other’s lines back to each other in the mistaken belief this is funny. It isn’t, but that doesn’t keep him from doing it over and over.
Christopher Walken’s tendency to take any role offered, seemingly sight unseen, is well known (And I think I’m being pretty respectful to a guy who appeared in both Kangaroo Jack and Gigli last year), and Stiller stopped being an outsider voice (if, in fact, he ever was one) some time between that crappy romantic comedy with Ed Norton and Jenna Elfman and the overrated Meet the Parents. Jack Black, on the other hand, seemed to have potential. Whatever the future holds, he’s taken a giant step backwards with “Envy.”
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