My Year Of Flops, Case File #2: Envy

My Year Of Flops, Case File #2: Envy

In David Thomson's unnerving Nicole Kidman, a book that splits the difference between creepy-pervert-in-a-trench-coat-voyeurism and creepy-critic-behind-a-laptop-analysis the venerable film writer introduces the idea of a "Viewer's Cut," versions of movies that exist only in the fevered imagination of individual audience members. I find the whole concept of a "Viewer's Cut" fairly dubious. After all, if you're reviewing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band write about the damn album itself, not the double-disc concept album of Latvian folk songs you think the Beatles should have recorded instead.

Nevertheless, in keeping with my vow to contradict myself at every turn I'm going to be using the concept of the "Viewer's Cut" extensively during this project beginning with the little loved Ben Stiller/Jack Black vehicle Envy, a curdled black comedy about two of my favorite subjects: jealousy and failure. On paper at least Envy sounds pretty much like every other money-making Stillertastic neuroses-fest: Stiller plays an uptight everyman whose daydreaming best friend/co-worker Jack Black becomes a nouveau riche gazillionaire after inventing a fantastical contraption that makes dog feces magically disappear. Needless to say Stiller writhes in bitterness and envy over his happy-go-lucky pal's sudden windfall.

As he's proven in countless terrible movies and several good ones, Stiller is a master at the slow burn so I expected Envy to center on Stiller's gradually escalating rage as Black's idiotic idea sweeps the country. That's certainly what would happen in my "Viewer's Cut" of the movie. Instead the film does something bizarre and unexpected: it cuts directly from Black joyously demonstrating his product's effectiveness before Stiller to Black being an insanely wealthy. Instead of Stiller's patented slow-burn Envy offers a no burn. Stiller goes from skeptical to apoplectic over Black's success without hitting any stages in between. What should be the meat of the film: Stiller's mounting rage is instead glibly elided over.

Similarly Envy seemingly loses interest in its main plot and becomes obsessed with a sub-plot involving Christopher Walken as a sort of scruffy homeless beatnik Iago (incidentally the Scruffy Homeless Beatnik Iagos would be a swell band name) who befriends Stiller then blackmails him after learning that Stiller apparently killed Black's beloved horse in a drunken rage. Walken's crazy bebop delivery transforms every bizarre string of non-sequiturs into a virtuoso acting solo ("You're Mr. Everyman and you don't even know it which makes you, like, the grand turbo Mr. Everyman," he tells Stiller in a characteristic riff). If nothing else Envy confirms that everything sounds infinitely more awesome coming out of Christopher Walken's mouth. He can make a phrase like "pretzel kiosk" sounds exhilaratingly alien. Walken essentially hijacks the film and sends it hurtling in a strange new direction but he does so with characteristic verve.

Like Punch-Drunk Love and The Cable Guy, Envy pushes a beloved comic actor's persona well past the point of likeability and into the realm of madness. Envy boasts a premise of almost sci-fi implausibility but the bitter, angry emotions at its core feel authentic. Stiller has some great speeches where he talks about how various totems of Black's success--the insanely elaborate coffee machine that looks like something out of a spaceship, the gleaming white horse that steals apples from his tree, the flan his children love--seem to silently mock him.

That said Envy is nevertheless something of an unholy mess. Its hero's a jerk. It's lopsided. There seems to be a reel missing. The normally brilliant Mark Mothersbaugh's gratingly zany music is an embarrassment throughout. In hindsight the decision to make feces a central plot point probably wasn't an overly wise one from a critical or commercial standpoint. The commercial dominance of dreck like Epic Movie (oh, the joys of the reverse-meritocracy) shows that folks obviously enjoy shelling out their hard-earned scratch to see shitty movies but they understandably have some reservations about movies that are literally about shit.

Failure, fiasco, or secret success?: Secret success

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