The repressed male upended, forced out of his unnatural rationalism and prudishness by a chaotic female: This is the thrust of the classic romantic screwball comedies; and it’s the theme (and variations) of Along Came Polly (Universal), which is like Romantic Screwball Comedy 101 with the addition of gross-out scatological sight—and sound—gags. It’s a textbook screwball scenario from a very elementary textbook: A repressed insurance risk-analyst named Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) is forced to loosen up when he becomes involved with a flaky waitress, Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), who runs away from scheduling and commitment—in other words, she’s a lousy risk. I’d like to say there are one or two additional nuances here, but that’s it, folks—that and poop and premature ejaculation and eating food off the dirty ground and slapstick gags featuring a senile pet ferret running into doors …
The movie is a peculiar and unsatisfying hybrid—but above all it’s a pedestal to its popular leading man, Ben Stiller. To be sure, Stiller has a fertile comic shtick. He plays little guys who are perpetually humiliated, but he’s no Charlie Chaplin or Stan Laurel: He isn’t serene, and he doesn’t take injustice in stride. Stiller burns with impotent outrage. He also—and here’s his real problem—burns with shame. He tries to hide his sexual urges—which means he has uncontrolled ejaculations. He tries to hide his irritable bowels—which means he has explosive diarrhea. He has a touch of homosexual panic—which means big, half-naked men waggle their flesh in his face. The shamefaced Stiller is inevitably surrounded by shameless extroverts (not unlike, come to think of it, his real-life dad, Jerry), who exhort him to throw away his inhibitions and act—a scenario that always ends in Stiller following their advice and ending up even more pathetically exposed.
It’s funny to watch Stiller writhe, in the squirmy way that passes for sex comedy these days. But sex comedy and romantic comedy center on different regions of the body and different stages of emotional growth. The best of the genre are Shakespearean in their suggestiveness, incorporating myths about learning to trust and let go—and I don’t mean letting go of one’s bowels, which is one of Reuben’s problems here. The writer-director of Along Came Polly, John Hamburg, wrote Meet the Parents (2000) and Zoolander (2001) and has become a specialist in Stilleresque humiliation gags and comic animal abuse. He devises three or four killer bits per movie, but he can’t find a rhythm for the scenes in which lovers actually converse. The emotional content is, to put it politely, stunted.
Stiller’s Reuben begins at the altar, where he marries Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing), a cute and perky real-estate agent who radiates materialistic self-absorption. On paper she’s a good risk, but it’s no surprise to the audience when Reuben finds her, on the first day of their honeymoon, making love to a French scuba diver—an impressively muscled-up Hank Azaria with an out-ray-geuze ac-zant. Reuben is about to learn that the greatest risk is playing it safe, first by observing a risk-taking (and, on paper, uninsurable) business magnate, Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown); and then by falling hard for Polly, who encourages him to stab his throw pillows with a butcher knife, salsa like a native Cubano, and eat mixed nuts out of a bowl in a bar—which he likens to a “hot zone of Ebola virus.”
His nut monologue is pretty funny (although the sequence doesn’t have a good punch line), and the couple’s first coupling has one of the more disarming premature ejaculation gags I’ve seen (and I’ve seen ‘em all). But Along Came Polly is one of those films that celebrate spontaneity and risk-taking yet are so formulaic and un-risky that they strangle their own message. The usual beats are all there, down to the hero hurtling cross-town to keep his beloved from getting on a plane. Hamburg’s mixture of camp and preachiness is especially lame. Leland Van Lew’s recklessness (leaping off skyscrapers, riding sharks, smashing his yacht into rocks) is obsessive-compulsive bordering on psychotic: No sane insurance executive would give this man a policy, teary life-lessons about learning to see the whole man notwithstanding. Hamburg can’t seem to decide if he wants to re-create the great screwball comedies or satirize them—or it’s possible that he brings so little conviction to what he does that he doesn’t understand the difference.
Along Came Polly is so generic that half an hour after it ends, all you’ll remember are the actors: Stiller’s look of panic when there’s no toilet paper in Polly’s bathroom, Azaria’s ree-deek-ulose syllables, Messing’s willowy poise, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s channeling of Chris Farley—demeaning for an actor of his stature but quite a bit more subtle than the original, God rest his soul. Aniston is surprisingly good here—throaty and soft and slightly detached. She resists the impulse to go zany and hits a couple of authentically weird (inward) notes, but the character never really comes into focus—not even fleeting screwball focus.
The best thing in the movie is Alec Baldwin as Reuben’s boss, another fleshy, high-living extrovert—the kind of guy who slaps Reuben’s bottom for emphasis when Reuben is standing at the urinal trying to pee. Baldwin is enormous here (with a voice that sounds an octave lower than usual) and his comic spirit is outsized, too. From the wreckage of his career as a leading man, he’s fast becoming one of the premier character actors of his generation, a man whose comfort in his own expanding flesh is a lesson to screwball comedy heroes everywhere.