Envy viewers are likely to experience cognitive dissonance. The film stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black, two unusually funny actors. It's got a clever enough premise, pitting Stiller's jealousy against Black's good fortune. It's directed by Barry Levinson. It's a brightly colored comedy. It's got a bouncy score and a supporting performance by Christopher Walken as a homeless man. Amy Poehler's in it. She's funny. The script seems to be constructed around jokes. In short, every element suggests Envy ought to be amusing, but the only comparably disastrous movie in recent memory involves Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez, and a rapping retarded man.
Living opposite each other in an anonymous L.A. cul-de-sac, Black and Stiller play best friends and carpool buddies. They share a ride to work at a sandpaper factory, where Stiller has pulled marginally ahead of Black in a slow race up the corporate ladder. Black lacks focus and has the performance charts to prove it, and he wastes his time thinking up get-rich-quick schemes, in spite of Stiller's chiding. But when one hits big—a spray called Va-Poo-Rize that instantly disintegrates dog waste—Stiller gets left behind, though maybe not far enough behind. Citing an unwillingness to abandon his best friend, Black builds a sprawling mansion on the location of his old house. Black's kids spend their days at an on-site amusement park, while Stiller struggles to pay for a "bean-shaped" pool; as Stiller drives off to work, he catches Black in his rearview mirror, relaxing atop a beautiful white horse.
It sounds like it ought to work, but then, sour milk looks like it ought to taste great. Most of the problems come from Levinson's failure to balance the black comedy with an assaultive sense of wackiness. He doesn't seem to know whether he's making a satire of suburbia or a live-action cartoon, and the cast looks confused by his indecision. Black and Stiller have already proven elsewhere that they can do both dry and over-the-top comedy, but no one can do both at the same time. And Levinson's attempts to even out the mood with silly, plot-specific songs sung in a Leon Redbone-inspired voice only irritate.
At one point, the long-shelved Envy carried Larry David's name in the credits. That's long gone, but the film does resemble a Seinfeld premise gone wrong, or a misguided improv routine inexplicably given a budget to indulge its bad ideas. Stiller and Walken spend much of the film's middle section carting a dead horse around. They don't actually beat it, but they might as well.