Doggone Fune

`Envy,' Barry Levinson's Waters-esque comedy, should clean up on laughs.

April 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Did Baltimore's favorite moviemaking sons undergo a personality swap? Just as John Waters has won over the mainstream with the musical version of Hairspray, Barry Levinson has cut to the outside with a movie that could be called Dogspray.

This quirky and enjoyable if flawed comic parable stars Jack Black as Nick Vanderpark, the inventor of an aerosol that vaporizes dog poop, and Ben Stiller as Tim Dingman, the best friend and cross-the-street neighbor who suffers in the glare of Nick's success. The movie reduces Americans' love-hate for success to an elemental question: Can a person base a solid fortune on anything - even something as basic and potentially polluting as the mysterious elimination of dog droppings? And can an entrepreneur in that business trust his success if he doesn't know where the stuff goes after people use his product to "va-poo-rize" it?

The movie takes place in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb. It contrasts uproariously with the precise, flavorful locations in Levinson's Baltimore movies (for example, Diner or Liberty Heights). The two guys live with statistically identical families (pretty wife, one son, one daughter) in similar houses and drive in Tim's typical economy car to do vague generic work in a sandpaper factory. Earthbound, practical-minded Tim measures success by his attainment of an office as devoid of color as a storage unit.

When Nick makes his fortune, he spends it on a McMansion that looms ridiculously large over tract housing but has as much lived-in texture as a theme park. Nick goes from seedy blandness to gold-plated banality. The movie paints a picture of a suburbia that anyone will recognize who's been to the new "power" or "lifestyle centers" that are taking over from malls. But that mundane brand of glitziness doesn't keep Nick's love of his success and material wealth from being explosively funny, and his unselfconscious generosity toward Tim and his family - which drives Tim crazy - from being improbably endearing.

Director Levinson and his screenwriter, Steve Adams, conjure a fractured-fairy-tale tone. They encourage the actors to magnify the smallest glints of avarice, affection and subterfuge without getting overblown. That goes not just for Black and Stiller but also for Amy Poehler and Rachel Weisz as their respective wives and, gloriously, Christopher Walken as an enigmatic drifter called the J-Man. All collaborate on lowdown yet airy flights of farce.

Black is usually such an overpowering presence that it's refreshing to hear him skate verbal pirouettes as a character Tim dubs "a dreamer." He's at his peak riffing fancifully, such as when he thinks his hand could be an alien creature.

Movies like Along Came Polly program Stiller too deliberately and frequently to get all wound up and then pop springs; here he pops less and provides more boing for the buck.

Poehler, Saturday Night Live's mistress of the crazed fixed glare, displays a blind acceptance of her husband's wild fantasies that's oddly sweet, as well as a lightning blond ambitiousness when she decides to run for Congress, "not the big one, of course, the little one." (She means the state Senate.) Weisz goes to town on the movie's top out-of-left-field gag: Tim's wife, a sylphlike woman, becomes so status-conscious that she abruptly decides she needs liposuction.

The movie hits a speed bump at the two-thirds mark and begins to wander. It lacks the tightness and inevitability of a first-class fable. But thanks to the sneaky rhythms of Levinson and company, Envy has a lot of loopy charm. When it's cooking, it's less of a morality play anyway than it is a comic morality ballad. And Levinson heightens that effect with a Mark Mothersbaugh song score that hilariously underscores Tim's missteps the way the recurring song in High Noon heightened the tension and the sheriff's heroism.

Walken, indeed, is an enigmatic drifter out of a Western, and whenever the action flags, he provides the perfect charge. He's the loose cannon in Levinson's arsenal, but he isn't the villain; he just wants to get people's genuine feelings out, even if they're bad. He's like a fringe-suburban bohemian: he says he always stayed away from large sums of money and remained "an independent contractor." It's a perfect role for Walken the eccentric comic genius, who, from his unexpected intonations ("good for you") to his seethingly ambiguous expressions, retains an unassailable integrity. In an unmistakable Walken improv, he says he got the idea for how to excavate a deeply buried horse from "those big things on Easter Island." Such inexplicably correct strokes make Walken the towering Tiki god of absurd movie comedy.

Envy

Starring Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Christopher Walken

Directed by Barry Levinson

Rated PG-13

Released by DreamWorks

Time 99 minutes

Sun Score ***

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