Envy
review by Gregory Avery,7 May2004

Along with being what must be the longest poo-poo joke routine in the history of movies, Envy must also be the only movie to build an extended comic riff around flan. Ben Stiller and Jack Black play Tim and Nick, longtime friends who live with their wives and families on the end of a suburban cul-de-sac, right under the high voltage towers, and who commute every day back and forth from their office jobs at a 3-M plant (which is lit and looks like the office Tom Hanks escaped from at the beginning of Joe Versus the Volcano). Just when they're about to irrevocably turn stultified, Nick gets an idea one day for a product, a spray that can make animal feces instantly disappear -- "Vapoorize", which the public, then the world, embraces. Rather than move, Nick simply builds a bigger house where he already lives, with an outdoor carousel and a white horse that keeps wandering over to eat apples in Tim's yard. When they have dinner at Nick's house, they eat off of fancy tableware, at the conclusion of which, for dessert, out come the plates of flan -- which, in the film, looks like sponge cake with runny caramel sauce spooned on top. Tim's already burgeoning sense of inadequacy (he passed on the chance to invest in "Vapoorize") is made even worse when his young son says, forlornly, "Boy, I liked that flan. I wish we had flan." Like the word "poo", the word "flan" is used in the movie as if just having the characters say it would be enough to provoke gales of laughter from the audience, just as Tim's gaudy, ostentatious spending is supposed to make us believe that we should laugh at him because he doesn't have the sense to possess good taste.

Envy is also one of the ugliest-looking Hollywood movies to come along in years -- decrepit colors, mostly browns, as if the whole thing had been left out on the back stoop for too long. (Which it has -- the movie was supposed to have been released last year.) The director Barry Levinson evidently saw this as his chance to make a Farrelly brothers movie, the visual scheme part and parcel of the movie's idea to create laffs by showing how everyone can be gauche and outrageously gross. Long routines are built around the disposal of an animal carcass, and around one character getting shot in the back with an arrow and trying to get someone to pull it out. There's even a recurring song (terrible) that comments on the action like the one in There's Something About Mary. And, of course, in one of those missing plot details by which pictures like this so precariously hang, nobody ever has "Vapoorize" tested to find out where the excrement GOES after it disappears. Mostly, we're stuck watching one joke after another go down in flames, like fighter planes on the horizon during World War Two. The film's biggest joke, though, is that Black's character, Nick, never acts out of maliciousness -- he spends his wealth, but he's still nice.

Jack Black, to his credit, never compromises his character by giving him an ingenuous moment. Christopher Walken almost manages to make the impossible character he's got work -- a barfly and bum who aids Stiller's Tim in elaborate plans of revenge. (I almost expected Walken's character, "the J-Man", to turn out to be a figment of Tim's imagination -- and, in an earlier incarnation of the movie, maybe he was.) Ben Stiller, though, is turning into a comedian who, when in doubt, flails his way through a movie, like a thresher through a wheat field. Some performers can do this gracefully, but Stiller doesn't have the grace, or time, to do so (this is the third would-be comedy he's been in this year), the result of which is that he becomes depressing and tiresome to watch. Bad enough, considering that he's working in a film which is blighted from the get-go.

Directed by:
Barry Levinson

Starring:
Ben Stiller
Jack Black
Rachel Weisz
Amy Poehler
Christopher Walken

Written by:
Steve Adams

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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