Polly's Folly

Party's over quickly after the opening

MovieReview

January 16, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

You might think that a New York-based risk assessor (played by Ben Stiller) would be a juicy, audacious subject for a post-9/11 comedy, but Along Came Polly takes place in a coarse pop-culture limbo built on shticks and groans.

The writer-director, John Hamburg, who won praise for his independent feature Safe Men (1998) and commercial success for co-writing Meet the Parents (2000) and Zoolander (2001), raids every cobwebbed corner of his movie-and-sitcom memory in this tale of the uptight risk analyst for an insurance company, the proper, real-estate-selling wife (Debra Messing) who dumps him on their honeymoon for a French scuba master (Hank Azaria), and Polly (Jennifer Aniston), a live-for-the-minute party waitress who brings a blast of spontaneity into our hero's life.

The opening sequence of a cautious-to-paranoid guy on his wedding day and his honeymoon in St. Bart's boasts some acceptable observational humor - Stiller acutely captures the broken rhythms of a wound-up fellow who pops his springs, and Azaria overflows with burlesque energy as a Frenchman who has as much trouble with his `R's as stereotyped movie Asians.

But in this movie, when the honeymoon is over it's really over. After one more funny scene of Stiller returning to his office (he's greeted by lines of pitiers), the movie spews low-down gags like an exploding septic tank of comedy. Alec Baldwin swiftly overdoes the vulgarity of Stiller's boss, who issues advice and instructions as he and his top employee stand at adjacent urinals. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Stiller's best friend, a faded and bloated Brat Pack actor with one long-ago movie hit to his credit, cavorts on a basketball court like a late-night fat-boy comic; he tries and fails to get laughs from a mixture of hubris and cluelessness when Hamburg hands him lines about soiled underwear or heterosexual spanking. (After this and his incredibly lazy performance in Cold Mountain, you have to wonder whether Hoffman, reportedly a sensation on stage, has lost his respect for movies.)

When Aniston enters wielding wine at a pretentious art gallery, her pluck inspires hope - especially when it turns out that Stiller knew Polly when they both were seventh-grade delegates to a Model U.N. But Hamburg won't permit Aniston to play a real person. With her blind-ferret pet and her salsa dancing and her willingness to spend $200 for a luffa sponge while living in a grimy East Village pad, Polly proves to be nothing more than that figure of film-land fantasy, the good-looking, goodhearted kook. She's a creature of sheerest celluloid, like Bryan Brown's daredevil tycoon (Stiller's latest risk-assessment case).

She's also an inert cliche, like the insular suburban Jewish mother (Michele Lee) who made Stiller phobic and the seemingly beaten-down Jewish father (Bob Dishy). As Stiller's dad, the gifted Dishy doesn't get to say a word until he states the movie's message - that you shouldn't linger on the past or worry about the future but just "enjoy the ride."

That speech constitutes what sitcom writers used to call "the moment of manure" (well, not exactly that, but this is a family newspaper), a phrase appropriate to a film in which the hero's first date with the heroine brings on a case of irritable bowel syndrome.

I believe you can wring genuine comedy from the most ribald and scatological material with crack timing and performances (see Bad Santa), but Hamburg piles on the bathroom sounds without bothering to turn them into a Silly Symphony. Like so many recent comedies, after a promising opening, Along Came Polly goes straight into the sewer.

Along Came Polly

Starring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Debra Messing

Directed by John Hamburg

Rated PG-13

Released by Universal

Time 90 minutes

Sun score

*1/2

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