While watching Jack Black and Ben Stiller bang out Envy Friday night, I reached a frightening realization: Jack Black has three times the acting range of Ben Stiller. JB has played a rockín roll obsessed loser (High Fidelity, School of Rock), a shallow womanizer (Shallow Hal), and now a naÔve dreamer in Envy. On the other hand, Stiller has been playing Mr. Furious for at least a decade and shows no sign of stopping.
In Envy itís more of the same from Stiller as he mucks around with yet another variation on his downtrodden character who gets really really angry when subjected to stress. This time around the catalyst is jealousy towards his best friend, who cashes in on the billion dollar idea Tim Dingman (Stiller) passes up. The idea is ďVapoorizeĒ a magical chemical that when applied to pet feces causes it to instantaneously vanish into the netherworld.
Timís friend Nick (Jack Black) dreams up the idea and pitches it to him, but Tim dismisses it as just another of his friendís crazy daydreams and refuses to invest. A few weeksí later finds Nick and his wife (Amy Poehler) building a Neverland-like mansion across the street, complete with cantankerous carousel and beautiful white horse. Tim wakes up every day with his family, staring across the street at his friendsí unbelievable success and being slowly but surely eaten alive by incurable envy.
Nick never intentionally flaunts his wealth in front of his neighbor. He builds a mansion across the street out of a genuine desire to live next door to his best friends and openly shares everything he has with them. But thereís laughter to be had in watching Tim die a little inside every time Nick feeds his kids flan or invites the Dingmanís over for dinner where Timís kid is forced to play a garbage can while Nickís plays a concert piano.
Chris Walken is in the movie too and succeeds as he always does in delivering a perfect performance that in some weird way draws humor through parodying himself. Here he plays a disturbed old bum who calls himself ďThe J-ManĒ and drives an outrageous monster truck. Heís always a sure thing and has been shining for decades in thankless supporting roles like this, garnering memorable chuckles in otherwise unmemorable films. When Stiller eventually has his inevitable moment of angry-man meltdown, itís J-Man who steps in to provide inspiration, hatching a plot which proves fruitless other than as a welcome catalyst to keep Walken on camera.
So Envy has some funny, but maybe not enough. Itís best when Stiller is exploding, or Black is flaunting, or Walken is well, just being himself. The movie is funny because the cast is funny, with little credit to be given to the somewhat disjointed script by Steve Adams. Reportedly Larry David had some input into the script and to me that shows most in the great uncomfortable moments between Tim and Nick as Nick works mightily to bring kindness to his friend and Tim sits quietly imploding from regret and comedic jealousy.
Towards the end of the film Tim finally has one last outburst in which he reveals everything to his friend, a speech which Stiller delivers with the kind of enthusiasm and zest he has only recently rediscovered. It sticks with you not only because it feels so openly genuine, but because Stiller and Black actually seem to have some sort of chemistry together. It may actually have been one of Benís finest on screen moments, though regrettably no one will see it lost in an uneven and poorly watched film like Envy.
Director Barry Levinson just doesnít seem to know how to let go, to free his film to the dark hearted euphoria of Stillerís manic material lust. Somethingís being held back, whether from inability to deliver or some unknown studio pressure. Sometimes it just isnít there. Whatever the case, the story repeatedly drifts away from the things which work and gets mired down in the things that just donít. Wouldnít it have been great if the J-Man had stood up in the middle of the film and reminded Tim that he has nothing to be jealous of? After all, Tim Dingmanís wife is Rachel Weisz and Nick is stuck being married to Amy Poehler.
Reviewed By: Joshua Tyler