May 6, 2004


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The ingredients that make up Envy — Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Director Barry Levinson, and a screenplay written with the help of Larry David — create expectations of comedic filet mignon. However, the comedy that this movie serves up is equivalent to hamburger bought on a Thruway rest stop.

The plot of the movie initially sounds interesting. Tim Dingman (Stiller) and Nick Vanderpark (Black) are best friends who live across the street from each other and carpool to their workplace, a sandpaper factory. While Nick dreams about new inventions, Tim concentrates his energy on his job. However when one of Nick’s crazy ideas (involving a spray-can formula which magically dissolves dog crap) succeeds, Nick becomes insanely rich, leaving Tim upset for not believing his friend and becoming a partner in the venture.

Up until this point, the movie is tolerable. Envy pokes fun at hopelessly monotonous suburban, white collar life. At one point in the film, Tim tells Nick, “If you work hard too you can have all of this,” as he points to his small office with faux wood paneling. What is even funnier is the incredibly poor taste of Nick once he becomes rich. Nick’s mansion features statues of himself riding a horse while holding a spray can of his product, a bowling alley next door to his bedroom, and clothing so flashy that even Cher would gasp.

However, after about 25 minutes, this is the film’s high water mark. The next hour or so evolves into an incoherent attempt to follow hollow storylines. After getting fired from his job, Nick drinks himself into a stupor. He also starts to take the advice of the semi-nuts “J-man” (Christopher Walken) to get even with his neighbor and he accidentally shoots Nick’s prized pony. At this point the film’s plot jumps totally overboard. As Tim tries to cover up his dirty deed, the “J-man” tries to blackmail Tim, Nick’s wife (Amy Poehler) tries to run for the state senate, and Nick makes Tim a business partner, after which they take a trip to Italy. Did you get all of that?

It is hard to direct blame for this movie, due to the fact that almost everyone involved in Envy’s production fails miserably. Certainly, Stiller deserves a big demerit for his acting performance. Stiller’s acting comes across as unmotivated as he ho-hums his way through the role of Tim, implicating that Envy was comedy number 58 for this year and just not worth his time and effort.

Even the usually off-the-wall Black seems unmotivated. Sure, he still jumps around and acts spontaneously. However, in Envy, Black’s zany actions do not advance the plot but instead just make for a good entrance and exit out of every scene. Unlike his performance in the films Orange County and School of Rock, Jack Black is not acting for the plotline, but more for Jack Black. Initially, Walken’s performance is funny, as he bumbles through incoherent stories and analogies. In one such monologue, he spends a good few minutes telling us about his prime job at the “pretzel kiosk,” making pretzels so good “they didn’t need salt.” However, we soon find out why Walken usually only plays supporting roles. Eventually his performance becomes too overbearing and just too plain weird to be funny anymore.

Levinson’s efforts do not help out the film either. While Levinson has created some great films in his career including Diner, The Natural, Rain Man, and Wag the Dog, his talent evades him in Envy. It also doesn’t help that Levinson does not showcase any form of good cinematography. The only interesting camera work in the film occurs during the opening credits as Levinson showcases the morning routines of Tim and Nick with a continuous camera motion instead of cutting between shots.

It’s no wonder that David did not take credit for Envy’s screenplay, to which he greatly contributed. The screenplay tries to introduce jokes with funny situations and lines. At the same time, however, the plot introduces physical comedy by continually adding unnecessary situations and tangents into the storyline. What results is a film with a lot of boring dialogue interrupted by random and unexplained acts of slapstick.

In the end, the only envy that this film produces is in its audience for the people who saw a better movie next door.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer