April 28th, 2004
Ben Stiller and Jack Black co-starring in a feature film. Sounds great, doesn’t it? And that’s why their new picture, “Envy,” is such a heartbreaking mess. With a reasonable idea for a movie, and a strong supporting cast, “Envy” seemed like such a comedy slam dunk. Enter Barry Levinson, who hasn’t made a decent film in over a decade. His rusty instincts for comedy ruin the film, and make “Envy” the most disappointing release of the year so far.
Tim (Stiller) and Nick (Black) are working stiffs trying to eke out a life for their families (including Amy Poehler and Rachel Weisz) in a lower class Californian suburb. Nick is a visionary who can’t focus on his work, and when he dreams up an animal feces removal spray called “Vapoorize,” he asks his best friend to go in with him on the invention. Tim passes, and 18 months later, Nick and his family are multi-millionaires, living obscenely right outside the window of Tim’s house. Frustrated and envious, Tim meets a stranger named the J-Man (Christopher Walken) in a bar, and the two conspire to upset Nick’s perfect existence.
This film is a heartbreaker.
Just looking at the talent involved with “Envy” is enough to put a smile on your face. Given the gifted cast and the relatively simple premise, I’m sure it would take a throng of Harvard scientists years of study and millions of dollars in support to fully comprehend how this film manages to grind to completion without producing any appreciable laughs. It just doesn’t make sense.
Stiller and Black are two comedy kingpins I have cheered heavily for in recent years, and I still stand behind them as the top of their class when it comes to screen comedians. Putting them together seems like such a no-brainer; a guaranteed laugh factory. But “Envy” is anything but funny. The two stars work intensely to make each scene find its maximum laugh zone, with Stiller building up a flop sweat every time the ball is passed to him to make a joke work. But nothing plays correctly. The material is paper thin, but there’s something there to explore, so that‘s not the weak link in the chain. And the film has a helluva supporting cast, with Poehler, Walken, and Weisz all having shown their worth in previous productions. Hell, even Black, who is clearly instructed throughout the film to just wing it on his own, cannot create anything resembling more than a titter. I didn’t know that was even possible.
Much of the blame for the failure of “Envy” goes directly to director Levinson, who really hasn’t made a good film in 14 years (“Avalon“), or 13 if you want to argue about it (“Bugsy“). “Envy” is Levinson’s attempt to play in the young person’s sport of comedy, and he just doesn’t have the faculties for the genre anymore. Levinson is directing a Smothers Brothers comedy in an Adam Sandler world, and the audience is made to suffer because Levinson forgot what a punch line was years ago. Scenes drag on forever (Tim’s admission to Nick about his feelings seems to last 1,000 years), jokes are underlined far too relentlessly, and Levinson resorts to speeding up the images in two sequences to create a false sense of wackiness. Terrible.
Unlike most DOA comedies, “Envy” isn’t a mean spirited train wreck. Instead, it just leaves you with a shell-shocked feeling as you exit the theater. You just can’t believe that something like this, which appears to be such a slam dunk, could be that bad. I’m sorry to say, it is.
My rating: D