Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Along Came Polly Movie Review

This review was originally written and published in January 2004 for a website that no longer exists. The unusual structure is a remnant of that site's requirements.

Synopsis: Ruben Feffer (Ben Stiller) plays a risk analyst for a firm that deals with insurance companies. He marries the woman of his dreams (Debra Messing) only to discover her in bed with another man (Hank Azaria) on the first day of their honeymoon. After returning to New York he bumps into an old schoolmate, Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), and begins a mismatched romance between his compulsive neurotic and her non-committal free-spirit. His best friend, Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), gives him worthless love advice from a man drunk on his own ego.

In the meantime, a subplot involves Ruben assessing the risk factor of Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown), an Australian in the market for a million dollar life insurance policy. The problem is that every time Ruben meets with Leland, he’s busy engaging in some life-threatening activity such as base jumping from the top of a skyscraper.

Scoop: I have complained for years that sitcom characters cease to be funny when they cross the line between real people in funny situations and cartoonish buffoons reacting in exaggerated ways to the circumstances around them. This is one of many problems in Along Came Polly.

Because of his profession, Ruben knows how to calculate risk on the spot, as when he warns Polly not to eat communal snacks at a bar because only one in six people wash their hands after using the toilet. Polly has lived in several countries and cities in her life, unable to settle down. Sandy is a former child actor still trying to bask in the glory he held years earlier. These are all perfectly reasonable traits with which to imbue your characters, but director John Hamburg, who also wrote the screenplay, bludgeons us with it constantly. He makes what should be occasional idiosyncrasies into lifestyles. I believe they call that “one-dimensional” in Screenwriting 101.

We should not lay the blame on the actors, however. They have little to work with as far as the screenplay goes. It is truly unfortunate, given Hamburg’s work as co-screenwriter on Meet the Parents. That is a film that succeeds in all the places this one has failed: believable characters; comedic set-pieces that flow organically from the characters and situations; a romantic couple with chemistry. Ay, there’s the rub! It is not only that Aniston and Stiller do not belong on screen together as a couple, but that their characters should not, would not, could not work as a couple. It makes it remarkably difficult to care whether or not they stay together.

 It does not take long before we start hearing the plot wheels grinding away and seeing the mechanics of the script at work. We sit and wonder not if, but when, Ruben’s cheating ex will show up asking forgiveness, forcing him to choose between two women. And of course he will do something stupid to make his choice that she will discover later, causing her to leave and he’ll have to…but never mind – you’ve seen it before.

I have chosen to focus on the elements in the film that I found particularly shameful, but it is not all bad. I have to admit to laughing more than a few times and I will watch Philip Seymour Hoffman with a smile on my face in just about anything. But at a certain point we have to ask ourselves, “What is the point?” Does it really matter that we laughed if we honestly did not care what happened to anyone in the story? I can’t say that it does.

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