'Polly': Less-Than-Stellar Stiller

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2004

There's no denying Ben Stiller's appeal. With his broad-jawed, simian aspect and expression so deadpan it's almost affectless, he has proven to be an able comic foil -- and a pretty good actor -- in such movies as "Flirting With Disaster" and "Permanent Midnight." Even in his broader comedies, he has retained a certain sense of dignity, emerging as a sort of thinking person's Adam Sandler.

"Along Came Polly" is firmly ensconced among the forgettables in Stiller's career, a generic romantic comedy of the one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B variety. As industrial product it's efficient enough, even if after a promising start it begins to falter. Written and directed by Stiller's chief amanuensis, John Hamburg (who co-wrote "Zoolander" and "Meet the Parents"), "Along Came Polly" is the sort of movie that depends for its laughs on gastric distress, scatology and a blind ferret.

Stiller plays Reuben Feffer, an insurance executive so attuned to risk that he plans his own wedding reception according to the actuarial data of his guests. He's marrying Lisa (Debra Messing), a fiery redhead who shows just how combustible she is on their honeymoon; without divulging too much, let's just say Reuben comes back home alone. He soon meets an old friend from junior high school, Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), who since her days as an overachieving mathlete and Model U.N. delegate has taken to a life of bohemian fecklessness. The two begin to spend time together, and Polly -- a modern-day Holly Golightly with a whiff of Annie Hall -- teaches Reuben about letting go while he tries to get her to settle down.

Complications ensue, of course, but nothing serious enough to interrupt the trajectory of "Along Came Polly," which hits its marks with the grinding regularity of a Ford assembly line. Aniston is characteristically warm and adorable throughout, her movie star looks never belying the funky earthiness of her character. After some admittedly funny jokes early on, Stiller is put to work on the film's central sight gags: an overflowing toilet and a gross-out joke involving a sweaty encounter between the hyper-hygienic Reuben and a shirtless, hirsute basketball player.

Hamburg filmed "Along Came Polly" in Manhattan, and occasionally he manages to capture the look and buzz of the city (although at one point you can almost see the Elmer's glue holding autumn leaves to a tree in Hell's Kitchen). Philip Seymour Hoffman does what he can in the best-friend role as a has-been actor so conceited that he insists on playing Judas and Jesus in a community production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

But other supporting players turn in tired caricatures, from Hank Azaria's French scuba-diving instructor to Alec Baldwin's adenoidal turn as Reuben's Jewish boss ("Mazel, mazel, good things" is his tag line). A subplot involving one of Reuben's clients, played by Bryan Brown, is deployed with little finesse, making the climactic final scenes not only implausible but also emotionally flat. In sum, "Along Came Polly" is a textbook example of midwinter movies. Why is it that Hollywood insists on treating the January blahs with more of the same?

Along Came Polly (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language, crude humor and some drug references.

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