Envy (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In Envy, the "Va-poo-rizer" is a liquid that, when sprayed on animal fecal matter, causes the offending substance to disappear. Would that such an invention existed to use on this motion picture… It's remarkably appropriate that Envy is about turds, because that's what the movie is.

If he's not at the top of the list, then Barry Levinson is one of the contenders for the title of "Most Inconsistent Working Director." It boggles the mind that the man responsible for such wonderful cinematic fare as Tin Men, Avalon, and Wag the Dog is also on the hook for Toys, Sphere, and Envy. This movie has languished on its distributor's shelves for a long time. Now, having experienced this 99-minute endurance trial, it's not hard to understand Dreamworks' reluctance to release it. The unanswered question is how something this awful could be greenlighted in the first place.

Envy is intended to be a black comedy - a genre of which I am inordinately fond. The Coens, Pythons, and Danny DeVito all have a pretty good sense of what it takes to mold material into something that is simultaneously comedic and disturbing. Levinson, despite the participation of Ben Stiller and Jack Black, fails to understand that a black comedy needs to be both funny and edgy - neither of which applies to Envy. This is a tedious affair that meanders along the journey of its plot before marooning us in an improbably happy ending. And our primary companion on this trip is Ben Stiller's Tim Dingman, a character so annoying that I kept wishing he would be vapoorized.

Tim and his best friend, Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black), work at the same 3M plant making sandpaper. While Tim is focused on his job, and gets a promotion as a result, Nick is a dreamer, always thinking of new ideas for inventions. When Nick concocts the Vapoorizer, Tim is dismissive. However, buoyed by the support of his own wife, Natalie (Amy Poehler), and Tim's wife, Debbie (Rachel Weisz), Nick employs a scientist to help turn his dream into reality. When he offers Tim the opportunity to invest, Tim demurs, thinking it's a sure way to lose $2000. Then the improbable happens - the Vapoorizer works. It's an instant success, and, in the wake of Nick's sudden fame and fortune, Tim loses his wife and his job. That's when, after collapsing on a bar stool one afternoon, he encounters the J-Man (Christopher Walken), a rootless vagabond who will change the direction of his life by encouraging him to give vent to his envy.

Envy reminds me strongly of The Cable Guy. Both films are bizarre and unappealing motion pictures with bland, disagreeable characters stumbling through situations that even viewers with warped senses of humor are unlikely to find amusing. Stiller directed The Cable Guy and Jack Black had a supporting role. Part of me would like to cut Envy a little slack for going against the Hollywood grain, but daring is only laudable when it works, and very little of what's in this film succeeds on its own, or any other, terms.

Everyone in the cast seems to be on Prozac. Stiller and Black are their usual offbeat selves, but their manic energy has been muted. Rachel Weisz and Amy Poehler are so subdued that it's almost as if they're not there. Even Christopher Walken fails to inject the proceedings with more than a momentary burst of fuel. As he showed recently in Man on Fire, Walken can be an excellent dramatic actor given the opportunity. Here, however, he's coasting on his well-known reputation of playing skewed individuals.

Envy contains a scene that will likely contend for one of the worst of the year - the seemingly unending apology that Tim offers to Nick. It's a painful, rambling monologue that is either another failed attempt at humor or presupposes that we feel something stronger than apathy for these characters. And, while forcing someone to sit through this movie could be considered inhumane, Stiller's actions may also raise the eyebrows of PETA members. This is the second consecutive movie in which his character has shot a horse. However, there is one thing in Envy that works - Levinson's over-the-top recreation of TV infomercials. So, if he doesn't rebound from Envy, at least he has a future in that arena.

Envy (United States, 2004)

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Rachel Weisz, Amy Poehler, Christopher Walken
Screenplay: Steve Adams
Cinematography: Tim Maurice-Jones
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
U.S. Distributor: Dreamworks
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-30
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1