Judging by the slender but still depressing evidence of the endless series of coming attractions that precede the two new comedies, Chasing Liberty and Along Came Polly, and the movies themselves, the American film industry apparently decided upon January as Moron Month.
The trailers provide much more than a simple glimpse of the pictures they advertise, which is a bunch of silly teen flicks. They provide enough in fact to make viewers believe they have seen all the jokes in the movies and certainly need not spend the money to watch what amounts to the extended version.
As for the two feature films, they exemplify the sort of tired thought and threadbare imagination that characterize so many contemporary movies. They are just the sort of effort that reminds us that whatever its artistic aspiration or quality, a work of cinema is also, like peas or tuna fish, a commercial product sold in cans.
The newest picture, Along Came Polly, features a better known and more highly regarded cast than last week's limp baloney. It stars Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston, who are supported by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alex Baldwin, Hank Azaria, and Bryan Brown. It also attains a slightly higher level of development than the wretched Chasing Liberty, i.e., it displays a generally controlled and unified narrative, a recognizable beginning, middle, and end.
To add fools to the fire, so to speak, it also however relies almost entirely on dozens of other Hollywood flicks in the past, not so much participating in a grand tradition as simply mixing stale ingredients from far too many far too familiar movies. Although he certainly did not invent the concept that drives the new movie, Neil Simon succinctly named it in his signature play, The Odd Couple, which describes much of his other work as well as the formulaic situation and plot of Along Came Polly.
The picture juxtaposes an uptight risk assessment analyst for an insurance company, Reuben Feffer (Stiller), with a happy-go-lucky bohemian, Polly Prince (Aniston), who wanders the world without any particular profession, career, or purpose beyond having fun. As even the most innocent filmgoer knows, the two wildly contrasting personalities, after considerable difficulties, will eventually overcome their differences, find some common ground, and establish something of a relationship.
Stealing boldly from The Heartbreak Kid of 30 years ago (also written by Simon), the picture opens with a marriage that dissolves on the first day of the Caribbean honeymoon, when Stiller's bride (Debra Messing) falls in love with a French scuba instructor. Stiller gradually puts himself back together when he meets an old junior high friend (Aniston), who loosens and lightens up the timid, repressed, boring statistician. Their predictable progress toward the usual relationship naturally encounters a number of obstacles, which prevents this trivial nonsense from ending after some proper and organic span of time, say about 42 minutes, and leads to some of its more tiresome and offensive material.
Besides borrowing copiously from Neil Simon, numerous Woody Allen movies, and works like When Harry Met Sally, the picture betrays the malevolent influence of the Farrelly brothers, who directed Stiller in Something About Mary. The essential running gag of Along Came Polly involves plumbing, both Stiller's own digestive track and the numerous bathrooms where he spends much of the movie. Aniston insists on eating in ethnic restaurants, where the food is highly spiced and people eat with their hands, which not only disgusts Stiller but also causes him to suffer both nausea and diarrhea, which become major subjects and purported sources of humor.
The performances of the two principals provide almost no help for this silly and often repellent rubbish. Neither actor appears at all engaged with the material, they fail to generate anything resembling sparks together, and above all, they are simply not very funny. Stiller does his usual passive, lovable goof bit. While after a fine job in the drab and nasty Good Girl, Aniston, dishearteningly, seems entirely uninterested in her part, her costar, or the movie itself.
The only people with any real energy or humor in the movie are the major supporting actors, both of whom simply take Stiller's scenes away from him. The ubiquitous Philip Seymour Hoffman just eats up the part of Stiller's best friend, a has-been child star, overweight, self involved, sweating on cue like a contemporary version of Edmond O'Brien, offhandedly delivering some outrageous lines, and finally, comically, triumphing at the end.
Alec Baldwin, as Stiller's oblivious, overbearing boss, also manages to enliven the picture the few times he appears. Like Hoffman, he seems to enjoy his character, which means he takes his task and his art seriously. Very little else in this moronic little picture deserves any recognition at all.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5 Fridays at 7:20 a.m., rerun on Saturdays at 8:50 a.m.