THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


In Along Came Polly, Ben Stiller plays Reuben Feffer, a “risk management analyst” for a major insurance company. His job is to assess risk, to recognize potential problems and avoid them. The demands of Reuben’s job have carried over to his personal life as well; he studiously avoids risk and takes the safest possible path. In some ways, that includes his marriage to Lisa (Debra Messing). She is the “perfect” woman, and he dreams of living blissfully with his perfect wife in a perfect home. It is, quite simply, the way he believes his life should be lived.

His views change when Lisa cheats on him – on the first day of their honeymoon. She runs off with a hunky French scuba instructor (Hank Azaria) while Reuben returns home to New York. His good friend Sandy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) – a former child actor who can’t accept that no one cares about him anymore – offers moral support. Truth be told, Sandy is not the kind of guy who should be offering anyone advice. The slovenly, obnoxious guy can barely hold himself together, psychologically or physically. (His definition of a process dubbed “sharting” is one of the funniest moments in the film.)

Then Reuben bumps into Polly (Jennifer Aniston), a girl he went to middle school with but hasn’t seen since. She’s now a waitress with a tattoo and a somewhat bohemian lifestyle. Reuben is attracted to her anyway, having decided that a little risk is perhaps just the antidote he needs. They begin dating. Well, sort of - Polly refers to it as more of “a fling.” She takes Reuben to ethnic restaurants (not realizing that he has Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and to Salsa clubs (not knowing that he can’t dance). Through it all, Reuben never complains; the feeling that he’s liberating himself helps him tolerate some of the more problematic or awkward moments. Eventually though, he comes to question whether Polly can ever live the kind of domestic life he still craves underneath. This puts their relationship to the test.

Ben Stiller has become the master of movies about social embarrassment in relationships. Along Came Polly comes after There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents, which also featured him stumbling through one humiliating situation after another in the name of love. Although there are similarities between the films, Stiller manages to be funny in each of them. I guess he has carved out a certain niche for himself to return to periodically. He is well paired with Jennifer Aniston. Their comic sensibilities and timing mesh well together. It’s one of the more believable on-screen pairings of recent years.

The able supporting cast earns laughs as well. Alec Baldwin has a small role as Reuben’s boss, who is a real vulgarian. A scene in which he follows Reuben into the men’s room is as funny as it is gross. (I won’t elaborate.) Hank Azaria, like Stiller, is revisiting familiar territory. He has played the wacky foreigner in movies such as The Birdcage. But also like Stiller, he manages to be funny again in spite of it all. My favorite performance comes from the always amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman. He gets big laughs in just about every scene. The actor makes Sandy a real head case; imagine David Spade’s Dickie Roberts character crossed with somebody who needs multiple 12-step programs, and that’s Sandy.

Here’s the bottom line on Along Came Polly: It could have been either a good superficial movie or a great deep movie. There were two roads to take. In the first, the whole “risk averse guy falls for freewheeling girl” concept could simply be played for laughs. In the other, the idea could have been more in-depth, choosing to really say something about the matter. Along Came Polly goes for the first option. Polly is flaky, to be sure, but she’s not particularly edgy or dangerous. We never really believe dating her is really all that risky for Reuben. The ending offers a platitude about opposites attracting, or love being blind, or something like that. It’s a message that tells us something we already know. Had they played Reuben as being neurotically averse to risk – or Polly as more of a carefree, amoral kook – the film might have had the kind of edgy quality that made Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild so memorable.

That said, I can accept the movie on the level they chose to play it. Writer-director John Hamburg (who co-wrote Meet the Parents) has put enough snappy lines of dialogue into the screenplay to get some decent laughs. He has also concocted some amusing situations for the actors to plug themselves into. Along Came Polly is not the sharpest movie ever made about a mismatched couple, but it made me laugh consistently.

( out of four)

Along Came Polly is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language, crude humor and some drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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