Barry Levinson is a wonderful filmmaker, but he has a somewhat spotty track record when it comes to comedy. Although he has directed such popular comedies as Wag the Dog, Good Morning Vietnam, and Tin Men, he has also turned out some pretty big flops like Jimmy Hollywood, An Everlasting Piece, Toys and now Envy. I think the issue is not bad taste, but good ambition. Levinson doesn’t pick easy comedies; he picks comedies that go out on limbs trying to do something different. By that measure, he’s either going to stand or fall. Despite a lot of promise, Envy is one of those that falls.
Ben Stiller plays Tim Dingman, an Everyman kind of guy who works as a supervisor in the sandpaper department of 3M. He thinks his life is okay; he’s married to the pretty Debbie (Rachel Weisz) and he has his own office, complete with tacky wood paneling. Tim’s friend, neighbor, and co-worker is Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black). Nick’s house is not quite as nice as Tim’s, and he doesn’t have an office. His wife Natalie (Amy Poehler) is attractive, but not quite the knockout that Debbie is.
One day, Nick comes up with an idea for a new product. He imagines a spray can filled with some kind of fluid that makes dog feces disappear. Dubbing the product “Vapoorize,” Nick envisions a world where it’s easier to clean up after one’s pets. Needing some development cash, he offers Tim a chance to invest in the idea. Tim thinks it’s ridiculous and declines. Lo and behold, Nick’s idea works, turning him into an extremely rich man. He tears down his little tract home and builds a palace in its place. He rides around the front yard on a while stallion. His backyard contains its own mini amusement park.
Tim views all this with intense jealously, especially after Debbie starts chiding him for not investing. At one point, she even takes the kids and leaves Tim temporarily. He tries to drown his sorrows at the local bar. It is there that he meets “the J-Man” (Christopher Walken), a bum who encourages Tim to somehow undermine Nick’s happiness as a form of revenge. The J-Man then keeps hanging around to lend a helping hand. All I can say is that it’s fortunate they got Christopher Walken to play the role because it’s absolutely pointless. At least Walken brings some of his wonderful weirdness to the film.
The problems with Envy start immediately. The first problem is that we’re never given enough introduction to the characters. For example, the first time we meet Nick, he’s blabbering on about some invention idea that we know would never work. The second time he pitches an idea – a mere five minutes later - it’s Vapoorize. Rather than establishing him as a character, the screenplay simply short-cuts it. We know him only as a guy who comes up with a lot of stupid ideas before one inexplicably works. This makes it hard to care about him. Nick also seems to tailor his personality according to the whims of the plot. Initially, he seems kind of mild-mannered and dim. Once he becomes rich, though, he’s eccentric and wild. It’s hard to know who exactly we’re watching.
The character of Tim doesn’t fare much better. The movie never gives us any sense of the hopes and dreams he might have for his family. It would have been nice to know something more about what the guy’s gone through in life. That way, we could understand his envy a little more.
A more significant problem is that it feels like entire chunks of the movie have been cut out (which is a real possibility considering Envy sat on the shelf at DreamWorks for a full year before getting released). Here’s an example: Initially Debbie seems to be a normal person. Then she goes to visit her sister and comes back all hippy-dippy. What happened there? Why has the character shifted so dramatically?
The longer the film goes on, the more the feeling grows that there are missing scenes because the story stops being about Tim’s jealousy of Nick. It gets sidetracked by a bunch of unrelated issues like Natalie’s burgeoning political campaign and some nonsense in which Tim accidentally shoots Nick’s horse and tries to hide the corpse. I had a nagging feeling that Envy was once an interesting story that occasionally went off on some strange tangents. In its release form, it appears as though the story has been cut out, leaving only the tangents. Every time the story seems like it’s going to build again (like the scene in which Debbie actually encourages Tim to take advantage of his friend), we cut instead to more inconsequential nonsense.
A few things remain enjoyable. The Vapoorize idea is actually funny, and the movie mines some laughs at its expense. Ben Stiller and Jack Black manage to get out some good moments, suggesting the potential that the project had. Near the end, Stiller goes off on one of his trademark stammering rants, which again shows his mastery of comic exasperation. Then there’s Walken – a delight no matter what film he’s in (witness Gigli). Although his character quite frankly sucks, Walken is typically odd in that way we all love. If Envy had been destined to be a big hit, I have no doubt that Walken’s bizarre rendition of “Valderi Valdera” would become a much-imitated classic.
Believe it or not, the movie I was reminded of while watching Envy was the infamous Death to Smoochy. Both pictures had such outrageously ambitious high concepts that they were destined to either become classics or fail outright. Both failed miserably, of course, although I give them both credit for trying. These are not your garden variety bad movies. They are bad movies that tried to do something original. I’m not recommending Envy, but I’d rather sit through an ambitious failure than many of the other Vapoorize-worthy turkeys out there.
( out of four)
A final thought: it occurred to me that Envy might have worked nicely as a mid-80's comedy, with Dan Aykroyd as Nick and Chevy Chase as Tim. It might still work with that casting because somehow the characters seem like they should be a little older than they are.
Envy is rated PG-13 for language and sexual/crude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
Return to The Aisle Seat