A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 
 

ENVY ½j

2004, PG-13, 99 mins.

Tim Dingman: Ben Stiller / Nick Vanderpark: Jack Black / Debbie Dingman: Rachel Weisz / Natalie Vanderpark: Amy Poehler / J-Man: Christopher Walken

Directed by Barry Levinson /  Written by Steve Adams

Barry Levinson’s new comedy ENVY is a bold and miraculous achievement in bad and atrocious filmmaking.   It’s a piece of work that is stupendous in its awfulness and a film so incompetent and so unfunny that that the terms “comedic dead zone” easily comes to mind.  The film is not just lacking in life, it might as well just be completely inert.  It was a long and maddening endurance test, one in which you pray to the movie gods to wake you up, because surly this 99 minutes of torture must be some sort of terrible nightmare.  No one woke me up, and the nightmare was most definitely real. 

Just what in the hell happened here?  How could a comedy with the two funniest men in films today (Ben Stiller and Jack Black) and an Oscar winning director (RAIN MAN’S Barry Levinson) sink so low into the abyss of sluggish and perverse inanity?   Leaving the theatre I kind of felt like a few of my favourite sports athletes were caught bribing the judges for a gold medal.  ENVY is a lot like that.  It was advertised as a great new black comedy that teams up two AK47’s of modern comedians.  And not only that, but if its directed by an Oscar winner, it’s gotta be good?  Someone should walk up to Levinson and put a gun to him and force him to relinquish his Best Director Oscar, because if he continues to make turds like this, having that gold statue is like some sort of unholy severance pay.  ENVY is easily the worst offence of Levinson’s already questionable career, and it viciously robbed me of nearly two hours of my life that I will never, ever, ever get back. 

It’s ironic that this film is crap, because it’s actually about crap. Tim Dingman (Ben Stiller) and his best friend, Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black), work at the same 3M plant making sandpaper.  Tim is a rigidly focused young man, who gets a promotion over the rash, impulsive, and slacker that is Nick.  Nick, however, has something that Tim does not have -  he is a man of vision, a man with a focused dream.  Nick is always thinking of new inventions.  In a lightening bolt of creativity, Nick invents the idea for, get this – VAPOORIZE – an aerosol spray that can make…feces…disappear (get it…poo…Va-poo-rize…ho-ho!).   

Tim is basically sick to death of hearing about Nick’s wild ideas, and stubbornly refuses to invest fifty per cent of the capital needed to get this invention of the ground.  However, Tim’s wife Debbie (Rachel Weiz) and Nick’s wife Natalie (SNL’s Amy Peoler) give Nick the support he needs.  Something amazing then happens - Vapoorize becomes an overnight success and turns Nick and his family into instant millionaires.  Tim, meanwhile, buries himself into depression and envy and eventually loses his wife and job.  Just when he thought he could go no further down, a street vagrant named J-Man (Christopher Walken!?) comes to his aid and with some weird, post-modernist Zen advice, convinces Tim to give into to his envy.   

Comedy, or laughs, dear reader, do not ensue. 

ENVY is a textbook graduate thesis on how (a) to completely have no idea on how to make an effective black comedy and (b) to utterly misuse two inspired and hilarious screen comedians.  Black comedies exist and work as a genre when they both generate lots of laughs and truly make you disturbed.  There is nothing inherently edgy, vile, or crude about the film (other than seeing dog crap appear on the big screen countless times) and the film has no big laughs in any way.  How could a comedy with Stiller and Black in it not have one single genuine laugh until the 45 minute mark (that scene involves a drunk Stiller, a bow and arrow, and a horse…’nuff said)?  Instead, the film just meanders and meanders aimlessly and expects the audience to be patient for its laughs.  Well I and the other suckers in the audience waited and waited and waited and waited to laugh.  Funny, comedies should not generate this type of response, and the theatre was so quiet you could hear a pin drop…it was like being at a wake.   

Okay, wait a tick; there are three laughs in the film.  The first one I already mentioned.  The second was Black’s somewhat inspired infomercial (but even here he feels subdued), and a concluding moment with Christopher Walken.  Outside of that, there is nothing else that even remotely generates a smile.  If anything, the film is absolutely trying too hard for laughs with no payoff whatsoever.  A concluding scene with Stiller and Black goes on for what seems an eternity, with Stiller jabbering away and pathetically and desperately trying for big laughs that don’t come (I felt embarrassed for Stiller, he was at his worst in that scene).  This film is a watch-checker flick, because you check the time more than you actually watch the screen in some sort of vain hope that the film will end and you can get on with your life. 

C’mon, Barry, what else went wrong with this train wreck?  Well, anyone who has seen Stiller and Black in action know that you must consistently play off their intense comic energy (Black, clearly).  Black is given nothing to do in this picture but to parade around in lavish outfits and make the odd wisecrack.  Stiller, who is easily capable of being the funniest man in films, is so shackled at playing this hopeless, annoying, and insensitive character that he does not generate any audience sympathy at all.  He seems so reserved and calm throughout most of the film’s first hour that you want to grab him, give him a slap, and tell him to cut loose.  But you really don’t care for the guy, because the film fails because it makes the target of Tim’s envy such a nice guy. 

The reason that Stiller’s other roles work (ie: MEET THE PARENTS) is that Stiller is such a nice man in them that he tries so hard to be accepted but fails miserably.  In this film, I just prayed that Black would shoot him with Vapoorize and make him and his tired comic antics disappear.  Consider: If Black played a jerk (he could do so well at that), then maybe our sympathies for Stiller would increase twofold.  All of the other actors give such stilted and forced performances I felt like throwing my popcorn at the screen.  The always lovely and witty Rachel Weiz overplays her character so badly that you wonder if Levinson even gave her any direction. 

Stiller and Black can’t possibly accept all the blame for this mess.  Like a failing team in hockey, the blunt of the blame usually is placed on the coach, in this case Levinson.  Does he know what a heinous film he’s made here, one that is ripe with no laughs, no discerning narrative, and characters that we don’t care for?  Levinson has made some great films in the past (RAIN MAN won for Best Picture at the 1989 Oscars, WAG THE DOG was one of the best films of 1997, BUGSY, LIBERTY HEIGHTS, and SLEEPERS are his other fine works).  Yet, like Babe Ruth, for every home run he hits, he strikes out as well.  Consider the dreadful BANDITS, the overwrought TOYS, the bloated SPHERE, other stinkers that should have been stopped before they were made.  It’s been years since we have seen a great effort from this director that has seemingly lost his touch.  Stiller and Black will survive this debacle (Stiller already has made three other hilarious films this year), but it is Levinson that will be hit the hardest.   

ENVY is not just bad, but shamefully bad, the type of terrible film that you stare up at the screen in stupefied disbelief and quietly ask yourself why and how.  Why was this film given a greenlight to be made and how is it that the film is so lacking in laughs when it has obvious comedic talent involved?  I did stumble upon some internet sites that stated that the film was made two years ago and that, after some disastrous test screenings, the film’s studio – DreamWorks – put it on the shelf and there it stayed for the next two years.  It was only when Black’s SCHOOL OF ROCK was successful that they decided to release ENVY to the film viewing public, and advertise it as a great comedy with the stars of SCHOOL OF ROCK and MEET THE PARENTS.  ENVY should have stayed on the shelf, and I will not forgive the suits at DreamWorks for releasing a film about crap that made me, in turn, feel like crap.  

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