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Envy

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Rachel Weisz, Amy Poehler, Christopher Walken

(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 30 Apr 2004; 2004)

Knockety Knockety

Tim Dingman (Ben Stiller) and Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black) are best friends and neighbors. Every morning in Envy, they don their uniforms (short-sleeved dress shirts and ties, off-the-rack slacks and jackets), eat breakfast with their families (pert stay-at-home wives and two kids each), and carpool to work (a sandpaper plant, where Tim has a plastic-wood-walled office and Nick toils just under him). On summer evenings, they have dinner outside in a bugs-away tent on Tim’s property, as their young sons entertain with a sort of “music”—noise made with harmonica and trash can lid.


They’re not precisely content, but neither are they precisely restless. Tim does point out that Nick could “get ahead” (get an office like his), if only he would improve the ratings on his “focus” chart at work (which fall into the “red zone”). But Nick’s a dreamer. His latest idea, inspired as they drive to work and spot a dog owner plastic-bagging a pile of poo, is a spray that will annihilate turds, so that such handling will become unnecessary. When Nick raises the possibility with his unimaginative buddy, even asks him to pitch in $2000 for the start-up, Tim dismisses him, encouraging him again to get some “focus.” But Nick pursues his ambition, enlisting the help of a “chemist” at work, and before long, he’s invented “Va-poo-rize,” a product he takes to hawking on infomercials. Voila, he’s a gajillionaire.


Rather than move off to Bel Air, however, Nick remains on his property in the Valley. When he erects a humongous mansion across the street from his favorite neighbor Tim, well, it’s just too much. Not only does Tim feel bad for his own failures, but he’s also encouraged to self-hate by wife Debbie (Rachel Weisz, who does her best to pretend she’s got an actual role here), who reminds him daily of the chance he blew. Tim succumbs to jealousy (“It’s all from shit!” he mutters repeatedly), his obvious simmering wholly missed by blissfully oblivious Nick. He and his wife, Natalie (Amy Poehler), consume conspicuously, crowding up their yard with gaudy stuff: yellow Lamborghini, carousel, pool, archery range and go-cart track, and a beautiful white horse named Corky, who lives in the backyard.


Tim is increasingly beset by the excess displayed each day: Nick tends to drop by, as of old, but now dressed up in the tackiest expensive garb imaginable: “Knockety knockety!” he yaps, puffed up with giddy excitement at the good fortune he likes to share with his friends. What he fails to notice (since he lacks “focus”) is that his gifts (elaborate coffeemaker, new clothes, new toys for the kiddies) and his generosity (bringing Tim along to golf at the local country club) only make Tim more miserable, making him feel impotent and dumb and mad at the cosmic injustice of it all.


The plot—such as it is—sort of kicks in when Debbie wearies of Tim’s increasing obsession with what he thinks he’s missing, and leaves him (“for a few days”), taking the kids to stay with her New Agey sister, the mercifully unseen Windsong. At his wits’ end, Tim blows up at his boss down at the sandpaper plant, and loses his job (“There he is,” Tim grimaces, “with the wind in his hair on his big shiny horse!”). Enter J-Man (Christopher Walken, recycling the same character he’s been working for 20 years), a caricature of a “bum” whom Tim meets at a seedy roadside bar.


After a few drinks, J-Man encourages his new buddy Tim to seek revenge against the “unfairness” he perceives (or, as J-Man puts it, to “shake things up”). In the scenario envisioned by J-Man, Tim is not the goat, but the hero of this script, the little guy who will eventually triumph. And so, Tim roars home, inebriated; when he acts out his underdog rage and weasely misery in the most unintelligible way possible, inadvertently wreaking havoc.


The fallout is exceedingly muddled and slow-moving, with occasional asides concerning the absurdities of political campaigns (Natalie runs for office, and is confronted with persistent questions concerning her husband’s invention: “Where does the poo go?”), gizmos out of control, and penis size anxiety. Such disjointedness is only underlined by occasional time-outs for Black or Stiller to act out his signature silliness. Perhaps these scenes, usually comprised of rambling monologues, are improvised, and perhaps they’re scripted (Steve Adams is assigned blame for the screenplay, though Larry David reportedly came up with the original story), but either way, they’re monotonous. Black and Stiller have similarly lurchy histories (sometimes brilliant, sometimes idea-less, sometimes floating in between), as does their director, Barry Levinson (from Diner to Toys, Avalon to Bandits). Scheduled to open a year ago, Envy is as dopey, uninventive, and smug as you’d expect from a movie that’s “all from shit.”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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