The funniest moments of Envy were the preview for Anchorman, starring Will Ferrell and opening July 9, and the closing credits, over which Jack Black and Ben Stiller ad lib an infomercial for a new portable dessert.
In other words, the best laughs come before the movie starts and after it ends. Not an enviable position for this sad little comedy to be in.
PG-13 for Sexual and crude humor
Tim and Mick (Stiller and Black) are neighbors. They work for 3M in a comedically hybrid world of ’60s modernism and millennial squalor. Borrowing a page from The Castle, they live next door to each other under about five sets of power lines, just a stone’s throw from the airport runway. Their kids play little league dangerously close to a freeway, and they relax in their gigantic yard by cramming into a little mosquito-net tent. They don’t see modern squalor, they see the American Dream, as packaged and sold by Kmart.
The Castle, a quirky Australian comedy from 1997, did this sort of humor better, but director Barry Levinson and production designer Victor Kempster (That Thing You Do!) are pretty good at it too. Trouble is, Levinson doesn’t make the setting a place where his characters can live, and they suffer for it. The characters are reduced to scenery. They are visual jokes, but they are no more alive or sympathetic than the power lines and the traffic. Stiller’s hair makes him look like goody two-shoes Rick Moranis and Jack Black’s edgy enthusiasm is dulled by goofy naivete.
The plot is workable but thin. Mick invents “Vapoorize,” which you spray on piles of dog poo to make it disappear. Mick becomes an instant millionaire and Tim is ostensibly struck with envy. Actually, envy doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, no human emotion comes through, not even the green one.
Lie Your Way to Success
Tim’s jealousy inexplicably drives his family away and costs him his job. (Losing his job, by the way, is the first laugh of the movie at about 20 minutes in; Stiller is finally allowed to do his schtick uninterrupted.) Afterwards, at a bar, he meets “the J-man” (Christopher Walken), who is the funniest character in the movie, if only because we don’t expect human qualities from the supporting cast.
The J-Man encourages petty attacks on Mick, and when that goes wrong, he encourages Tim to lie his way back to normalcy and success. Yes, Envy is one of those movies where our protagonists are too dumb to recognize that honesty is the best policy, creating an endless spiral toward the absurd and ridiculous.
Notably, Envy is the second film this year to feature Ben Stiller earning “laughs” by killing an ostentatious horse. (See also Starsky and Hutch). The equicide wasn’t particularly funny in Starsky and is less so in Envy. Levinson tries to pep up the scene of horse-corpse disposal with unending choruses of Happy Wanderer (“Valderee, valderah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”) trying vainly to add some humor to the flat scene.
There actually were a few laughs in the movie, mostly from Stiller and Walken, and often from some background detail of Levinson’s; Black’s character is too nice for his schtick to work. But the laughs are few and far-between, and the ending doesn’t come soon enough.
One could easily close with a joke about spraying Mick’s product on this film, or envying those who didn’t buy a ticket, but I just don’t have the heart.