'Envy': Driving a Shtick on Easy Street
Friday, April 30, 2004
"Envy" is one of those cinematic curiosities that almost always fade quickly, but that will usually find a devoted cult audience once it hits that peculiar Elysian Field known as the aftermarket.
Ben Stiller and Jack Black star as best friends and neighbors whose relationship is torn asunder when one of them becomes an overnight millionaire. As Tim Dingman and Nick Vanderpark, Stiller and Black play exactly to type. No new colors here, just the characterizations -- some might say shticks -- that have made them famous. Stiller's Tim, a middle manager in the sandpaper department at 3M, is a featureless drone who thinks he has hit the big time when he acquires an office chair that has adjustable lumbar support; Nick is the irrepressible dreamer, the million-dollar-idea man whose idea for an aerosol dog-waste remover winds up making him, well, a million dollars.
Fans who have adored Black's manically funny performances in "High Fidelity," "Shallow Hal" and "School of Rock" may find that the act is wearing a bit thin in "Envy," which was written by Steve Adams and directed by Barry Levinson. Almost constantly mugging and indulging his penchant for over-the-top physicality (he can't walk up a flight of stairs without a few flamboyant kicks), Black is the same guy he has been in all his movies, an overcompensating naif who's as lovable as he is grating. Blissfully unaware of the murderous resentment and self-loathing building up in Tim (who blew a chance to invest in his friend's invention), Nick builds an enormous mansion across the street from the Dingmans' sad little house; he buys a huge white horse that he rides like the Lone Ranger while Tim angrily folds himself into his tiny car to go to his dead-end job. It's so easy to visualize Black's jack-o-lantern grin and Stiller's spiky rage in these roles that it might be too easy: They deliver dependable performances, but you wonder whether "Envy" would have been more interesting had Levinson reversed the roles.
Things eventually get ugly in "Envy," but the violence is purely slapstick and occasionally even funny, albeit in a strained way. (A sight gag involving a horse's tail and a windshield wiper is inexplicably hilarious, probably because the rest of the movie isn't.) Christopher Walken shows up as a malign drifter who acts as the devil on Tim's shoulder; Walken seems to have been playing this role all his life, but he still gives it his signature brand of cracked commitment.
Rachel Weisz, as Tim's discontented wife, is the only one playing it straight in a cast that also includes Amy Poehler (of the Upright Citizens Brigade) as the cluelessly ambitious Natalie Vanderpark. Her portrayal of the nouveau riche California wife who buys her way into credibility through environmental activism is sure to strike a few nerves in Hollywood. The problem is that "Envy" doesn't know whether it wants to be an all-out, fangs-bared satire or a gently allegorical buddy picture, offering proof yet again that even when it comes to movies, it's not easy being green.