January 16, 2004

Running out of steam

Along came Polly feels like a little of the same

By Jose Daniel Bort

It’s been a long marriage between comedian Ben Still-er and Writer/Director John Hamburg, in terms of artistic collaboration. Along came Polly marks the first time the writer steps on the director’s chair in front of the actor. The result proves one more time that, with very few exceptions, writers should not direct their own material. Along came Polly is the lamest Ben Stiller comedy in years.

Stiller spins another version of his well-known self-deprecating character he’s been doing for a while, now in the form of a neurotic Risk Assessment Manager (Ruben Feffer) that leads his life the same way he quantifies the percentages on which his clients are subject to risk. After deciding in his honeymoon that scuba diving could be a little too much for himself, he left his newlywed wife Lisa (Debra Messing) in the hands of a hunky French instructor Claude (Hank Azaria), just to find them banging each other with the flippers on afterwards. From now on, Stiller is loser Ruben.

With no time for mourning in comedy, merely a couple of days after coming back from his frustrated honeymoon, Ruben decides to ask out an old junior High classmate that he meets at a phony upscale Soho party. Enter Polly, a likeable loser of her own kind:

Unable to commit to suitors or to hang on to any foreseeable job with a future, Polly is the funny opposite of the already not so credible Ruben.

These two try to date and everything goes wrong, leaving the audience wondering why the hell they keep calling on each other to be together when each and every moment on their dates is a disaster. The problem here is the absolute lack of redeemable qualities in their encounters, and the amount of unfunny situations that would create havoc even in the most love struck of characters.

The other suspicious treat is the similarity with previous good sequences on Ben Stiller movies. There’s a ferret called Rodolfo (Stiller’s treatment and comments on the furry animal has created a world of controversy, he apologized about them in the Today Show) that has a little rendezvous with Ruben in Polly’s bathroom that look a little too similar (and less funny) than his encounter with the old lady’s dog in “There something about Mary”. Also, the gross out fluid humor mortally criticized in Stiller’s latest stint, Duplex, is evident again in a basketball with his best friend Sandy Lyle (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a couple of hairy, sweaty strang-ers. You get the picture.

Talking about Hoffman, what happened with the witty, sarcastic characters this actor delivered at the end of the last century? his latest efforts look like wash-ed out excesses destined to show off in front of the camera. Same fate is for Alec Baldwin, who’s found a comfortable place in the supporting actor category, leaving him finally feeling good in his own skin. His only memorable scene is a toilet humor sequence with Stiller plagued with com-monplaces about manhood lengths and bodily fluid remnants.

Anniston as Polly delivers the same kind of likeability she has everybody accustomed (and that served very well as a second dish to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty). She seems like everybody’s favorite friend to have a career in motion pictures, but in order to stand out on her own she may need to break the predictability mold her “right on” or “yeah, dude” phrases give her all the time.

Stiller will continue to do comedies of this kind for a long time, but his bankabi-lity as a star will depend on the originality of a formula he got nailed since “Mary’s” in 1998 and that now it’s running out of steam. He’s a talented man, though. He’ll figure out soon a new reincarnation of himself as a funny man. For now, it’s better to pass this on to video for a third option on a Saturday night.

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