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Humor 'Envy'

Surprisingly good performances from Jack Black and Ben Stiller (!) can't overcome a dreadful, unfunny poop script

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I am told that Envy is scheduled to be the last poop movie ever made. A shame, really, that this fine art form should die so unseemly a death, but, like the Golden Age of Greece and the glory that was Rome and the protections and rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution, I guess all things must end.

Envy is also one of the last films of this year's dog season, that period after the Oscars and before the $200 million summer lobotomy films, when Hollywood dumps its excrement in the movie theaters in the hopes that we, like little dogs currying favor with the big dogs, will roll around in it.

Shockingly, Envy isn't nearly as bad as I'd hoped it would be. You really want the last dog-season film of the year to be the kind of thing that you'll tell your grandchildren about, a "Yep, I saw Pluto Nash and lived to complain about it!" sort of thing.

Envy is just your basic, not-so-funny, poop-oriented comedy, which is strangely uplifted by some fine performances and some really expensive and needlessly excellent cinematography.

The film opens with a revolving camera shot that switches between the Dingman and Vanderpark family homes. The camera swirls around the morning rituals of each house, passing through walls as it makes its way between the two. This is a tremendously expensive and difficult shot, and it's executed perfectly. If director Barry Levinson had simply wanted to show the two families eating breakfast and such, and had simply cut back and forth between the two scenes, he could have done this with minimal planning in a few hours. That's how they do this sort of thing in small, independent films.

But instead, he spent enough time and money on that two-minute sequence to buy anti-environmental legislation that could increase global warming by 4 percent. Why is this important? Because he could have spent all that time and money on something like jokes, this being an alleged comedy and all.

And it's not such a bad premise for a comedy, except for the poop parts. Ben Stiller plays Tim Dingman, whose neighbor, Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black), shares the same dreary life working in a sandpaper factory and living in a run-down tract house. Nick, though, is a dreamer, whose dream of insane wealth comes true when he invents a product that makes dog poop disappear.

Suddenly, he's converted his home into a mansion, rides around on a white stallion and has a lawn-full of merry-go-rounds and archery ranges and bi-level hot tubs. This produces the titular envy in Dingman, who goes mad with it and winds up hurting and destroying and thrashing about trying to find something funny to do to take his mind off the pain of existing in this movie.

Jack Black is great in his role. He's so human and loving and lovable that you want to just put a collar on him and call him "Fluffy." And Ben Stiller is surprisingly good, conveying real humanity, which is something he rarely is able to do.

Plus, Christopher Walken does a great turn as a weird bum who helps Stiller get revenge, and Rachel Weisz is spot-on as Stiller's resentful wife. They're surrounded by tremendously detailed sets that do a lot of the story-telling work, and some great costumes that are way funnier than the script.

So, if we want to pin the blame for this movie on someone, it wouldn't be art director Seth Reid or costume designer Gloria Graham or set decorator Ronald Reiss or cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones or any of the performers or even the big white horse, which is a better actor than Keanu Reeves and prettier than Lindsay Lohan.

Who does that leave? Director Barry Levinson, who last made a good movie when the United States had budget surpluses, and writer Steve Adams, who doesn't seem to have any credits to his name, and, if he's smart, isn't really named "Steve Adams" and has left the United States.

Oh, and the music also sucks. Plus, the music pretentiously celebrates the story, with lyrics about how this is a movie with "no explosions, no car chases, just a simply tale of envy." It's like the songwriter (Mark Mothersbaugh) was instructed to do a victory dance in the end zone, which is always poor form, especially when you haven't actually scored.

But it's easy to point out what's bad about this movie, since no one's gonna like it much. What's interesting, and sad, about Envy is what's so good about it. Stiller's and Black's on-screen friendship really has some meat to it. Black seems clueless but nonetheless dedicated to his buddy, and Stiller really seems torn between his need to be a good friend and his intense hatred of his neighbor's success. There are even some truly touching scenes.

And, while most of the film revolves around the most annoying of comedy plot devices--one guy trying to hide something he's done, and then finding that each lie forces him deeper into a pit of deception--the resolution of the problem occurs in a manner that is seldom seen in comedy films: The two friends talk things over and respond like real people would. It's a stunning moment for its honesty and simplicity, especially when embedded in a failed gross-out comedy that has over 14,000 references to dog excrement.

Not that it makes Envy worth watching, but it does keep it from being Eddie Murphy-level awful. It even makes it seem a bit thoughtful. It's just that the thought is buried under a big, stinking mound of dog doo.

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