How is it that director Barry Levinson can make such lasting modern classics as 1988's "Rain Man" and 1990's "Avalon," and other successful features like 2001's "Bandits
," and then opt to tackle a project as inconsequential as "Envy?" With comic powerhouses like the recently oversaturated Ben Stiller (2004's "Along Came Polly
") and invaluable Jack Black (2003's "School of Rock
") on board, "Envy" would seem destined for greatness, or at least a round of solid laughs. Save for that rare funny moment that sneaks in, "Envy" is a comedy that wants to be dark and scathing, but lacks the courage of its convictions. It works better as a comment on today's material-driven society, but not enough to make its mostly agreeable 99 minutes worth sifting through.
Tim Dingman (Ben Stiller) and Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black) are longtime best friends whose tight-knit families, including wives Debbie (Rachel Weisz) and Natalie (Amy Poehler), live across the street from each other in a powerline-heavy neighborhood in the Valley. Working together at a sandpaper factory, Tim is happy with his working-class, family man existence, while Nick is a dreamer constantly trying to concoct get-rich-quick schemes. When Nick hits the jackpot, so to speak, with an invention he calls "Vapoorize," a spray that makes dog feces disappear, he is instantly made famous and rich. Because Tim had a chance to join him on the enterprise and passed, he grows increasingly jealous as he sees Nick build a mansion across the street and treat himself to all of wealth's luxuries. And after a chance meeting with the mysterious J-Man (Christopher Walken) at a nearby watering hole, Tim decides to take Nick and all of his success down.
Written by Steve Adams, "Envy" wants to be a merciless dark comedy along the lines of something Danny DeVito (1989's "The War of the Roses," 2003's "Duplex
") might make, or at least that is how it sets itself up, but then its searing vision recoils just as it should be taking off. Tim is overcome with jealousy for Nick's fabulous new life, but the revenge he takes on him turns out to be accidental (he kills Nick's beloved pet horse with a bow and arrow) before evaporating altogether. The whole tone is like that, lackadaisical when it should be ferocious, low-key when it should be wilder.
Without much to laugh at (the poop-disappearing spray is as preposterous and lame as it seems), the film's most tantalizing aspect is its skewed, but honest study of the American Dream, and how all of the love in the world is not quite enough to make you happy when you lack financial security. Some people can deny this all they want with the whole "money can't buy happiness" claim, but they're lying to themselves. Besides, it isn't necessarily the money that Tim yearns, although he knows it would be nice. Instead, he simply wishes for material equality with Nick, and it pains him to no end when that is taken away from him and Nick gets rich. It is a tricky subject, but director Barry Levinson pulls it off and makes it the film's sole rewarding element.
Ben Stiller has been in no less than six films in the last year (he really should work less), but his concentrated turn here as the envious Tim Dingman is one of his best recent performances. Without the broader, most outlandish character strokes of "Starsky & Hutch
," for example, Stiller finally has a palpably normal character to build and deepen, and he does it well. Jack Black is paid no such favors, and actually has little of interest to do throughout. As their steadfast wives, Rachel Weisz (2003's "Runaway Jury
") is playing below her abilities, and the wasted Amy Poehler is much more memorable in "Mean Girls
." Christopher Walken (2004's "Man on Fire
"), however, is a standout, goofy and oddly likable as a troublesome stranger who decides to use Tim for his own well-being.
Despite not being the disaster many are calling it, it is easy to see why "Envy" has been held from release for over a year (at one point, it was even rumored to be going direct-to-video). The film's premise is not commercially viable, the comedy is limp, and with the end credits viewers are more likely to shrug and quietly exit the theater rather than be roaring with laughter. Director Barry Levinson has something to say with "Envy," but he forgets to let audiences in on exactly what that something is. This is his most undernourished film since 1994's "Jimmy Hollywood," and if you can't remember that disposable Joe Pesci comedy, don't worry. Nobody does.