ENVY

3 Stars
Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 99 minutes
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The new comedy starring Jack Black and Ben Stiller sat on the
Dreamworks shelves for a year prior to its release and, ever since, has been the target of universally contemptuous reviews. In all likelihood, this is the first article on the subject of “Envy” you will read-perhaps the only one-which will not equate the picture with the substance Black’s character invents a product to eliminate. But I am prepared to go further than that. I am willing to go on record
as asserting the movie is not remotely abominable; that it is in fact consistently adequate and, in places, achieves nothing short of above-averageness.
Think about it: How bad can a movie starring these two guys be? You’d need a script strategically designed to sabotage their exceptional comic gifts to wind up with anything less than at least medium grade merriment and “Envy” has the added benefit of a note perfect supporting performance by Christopher Walken.
Black and Stiller have an appealing chemistry as best friends and family men who live across the street from one another in a modest suburban neighborhood, commute together and even work at the same sandpaper plant. The idea is Black’s character’s a sweet natured manchild who’s perpetually dreaming up get rich quick schemes. Stiller’s is a decent enough chap but one who’s also a bit frayed by his slow-track life and prone to naysaying.
Saying nay turns out to be a big mistake when his pal offers him the opportunity to go 50/50 on his latest brainstorm-a spray that makes doo disappear. For a mere $2,000 investment he could’ve shared in the hundreds of millions Black rakes in when the crap-zapping Vapoorize actually hits shelves and pet owners tired of stooping to pick up poop pick up his new product instead. Stiller’s marriage is one already not without tension. Needless to say, watching the couple across the street strike it superrich doesn’t make it any more blissful.
That’s right: across the street. Black’s lovable shlub is such an innocent he doesn’t want to move away from his friends and hasn’t a clue that they could be anything but thrilled for him. He builds a mansion complete with an indoor bowling alley and pool, a merry go round, an archery range, go-cart track and, to top it off, a mini mansion for his pride and joy, a white stallion named Corky. Forgoing his morning Joe, rather than drink it made with the imported coffeemaker his neighbor gave him as a gift (one of many), Stiller stares out his window, watches as every dream his friend has ever had comes true and, slowly but surely, goes insane with jealousy.
At which point he bumps into Walken in a bar. “I don’t drink,” Stiller informs the bartender, “so please just give me what you’d want if your family left you and you just got fired.” Walken overhears and inserts himself in characteristically surreal fashion into the poor schmuck’s life. One of the most peculiar creations in a career built on peculiar creations, J-Man is part aging anarchist, part extortionist and decidedly not all there but, into his third or fourth beverage, Stiller begins to believe his new best friend knows whereof he speaks. Not long after he winds up driving into the woods under cover of night with a deceased horse tied upside down to the roof of his vehicle and wondering how things could possibly get worse.
One of the things I liked about “Envy” is the fact that they don’t. The film could’ve continued into meaner, darker territory and provided the gratuitous cathartic spectacle of a loser coming unstrung and seeking revenge for his hard luck but that’s not where the film’s heart is. Veteran director Barry Levinson allows his two stars to get in touch with their inner cartoons but knows when to reel them in and shift gears back to human comedy. The movie’s theme is, after all, meaty stuff. We all covet. We watch the rich and famous live glamorous lives and picture ourselves in their place. We secretly stew as acquaintances succeed where we fail. Who among us doesn’t deep down believe he deserves a better hand than the cards fate has dealt him? We’re talking about a powerful, highly motivating emotion. It’s striking, for that reason, that Levinson’s film is one of so few ever fully devoted to it.
To be sure, we aren’t talking “School Of Rock” or “There’s Something About Mary” here. Levinson has given us immortal comedies (“Tin Men”, “Wag The Dog”) and abysmal ones (“Toys”, “Bandits”). “Envy” ranks somewhere between. It may not feature the funniest performances Stiller, Walken and Black have ever given but, these three guys giving performances just this funny is enough to make “Envy” a movie you’ll end up kicking yourself for missing.



Posted on May 4, 2004 in Reviews by
Buffer


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