Judge Dave Ryan enjoyed this film—back when it was on TV and called Dharma and Greg.
I don't know a lot of things in this world, but I know this: when a box screams "HYSTERICAL!" and "HILARIOUS!" at me, the odds are good the film in question is neither. Sure enough…Along Came Polly is funny at times, and well-acted for the most part, but hysterical? Sorry, no. In fact, the film is much like one of writer/director John Hamburg's previous scripts, the popular Meet the Parents, in that it creates extremely uncomfortable situations for its main character, but leavens them with a dash of humor. It's a perfectly acceptable, non-challenging, average film. And that's just fine.
Facts of the Case
Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller, Zoolander, son of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara) is about to take The Plunge. An insurance analyst who studies risk for a living, he's grown to be neurotically risk-averse; hence, his main goal in life is to settle down quickly to a life of risk-free enjoyment. As we meet him, he's decided to marry a woman named Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing, Will and Grace), who is pretty, smart, and—risk-free. Or so he thinks.
One day into the honeymoon, Reuben and Lisa encounter a French scuba instructor named Claude (Hank Azaria, The Birdcage), who's also a part-time nudist. They agree to go diving with him, but at the last minute Reuben backs out due to stomach issues. Lisa goes off with Claude. When Reuben comes back to pick her up later, he finds the two of them…well, they're doing something that's definitely isn't scuba, but they are working the fins into it…
Suddenly single again after Lisa's decision to go French on him, Reuben returns to New York and tries to put his life back together again. He meets an old middle-school classmate named Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston, The Good Girl) at a Chelsea art-opening party—he's been dragged there by his best friend, a washed-up Anthony Michael Hall-type actor named Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Boogie Nights); she's a waitress. They're like night and day (something Sandy quickly picks up on), but Reuben is strangely attracted to her. They start dating. Meanwhile, Reuben's boss Stan Indursky (Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October) puts him in charge of assessing whether the firm should issue a life insurance policy to extreme-living Australian tycoon Leeland van Lew (Bryan Brown, Cocktail). Intrigue is created when Lisa arrives back on the scene, begging Reuben to take her back. Oh, and there's a blind ferret involved, too. Wacky hijinks ensue.
I liked this film back when it was called There's Something About Mary. I also liked it when it was called Meet the Parents. Loved the TV version, Dharma and Greg. Dug the fantasy version, called Shrek. Derived much pleasure from all 55 times the story appeared on The Love Boat. I think everybody Wang Chunged when it showed up as The Wedding Singer. Even enjoyed the space opera version—Attack of the Clones or something. (Except I'll take Phil Hoffman over Jar-Jar any day.)
I think you catch my drift here.
If you're going to make what is, really, a tired old "opposites attract" story that's been around since Cinderella, you should at least put a twist on it. What's the twist here? A blind ferret and poop humor.
Admittedly, the ferret is kinda sorta funny, in an odd way, and the poop humor is as subtle as poop humor can be. (Which isn't very subtle, mind you—suffice it to say this isn't Farrelly Brothers-caliber poop humor.) But it doesn't lessen the "been there, done that" feel of this story.
Which is a shame—because the talent level in the film is substantial. By now, we all know that Ben Stiller is very capable and talented, and is so in this film, so no surprise there—but Aniston is proving to be a better comedic/dramatic actress than many expected. The two of them have good chemistry—they act like a natural couple, and the interaction between them never feels forced or "acting"-like. Polly, in Aniston's hands, is an absolute dream girl. She's fun, funny, very tolerant and understanding, and quirky in a good way. It's easy to see why Reuben is attracted to her.
The really fun thing about this film, though, are the great performances by the supporting actors. Alec Baldwin is hysterically funny as Reuben's boss Stan, a guy who manages to be charming and resoundingly offensive (or uncomfortable) at the same time. (I can't get his catchphrase—"good things"—out of my head, actually.) Equally good (as should be expected) is Philip Hoffman as the washed-up actor Sandy. Hoffman appears to be playing the character as being a lot like Jack Black, not like the Brat Pack actor he's clearly modeled on. Which works just fine—Sandy's a hoot. Michele Lee (Knot's Landing) and Bob Dishy (Used People) have a limited but funny turn as Reuben's parents. Lee, of course, does all the talking and most of the judging (oy—just like a good Jewish mom should), while Dishy is just along for the ride (having given up trying to get a word in edgewise long ago). The parent characters are used solely for specific plot advancement purposes, but Hamburg cleverly obscures that function via scenes that are among the funniest in the entire film. You'd never know that Debra Messing is a very skilled, and highly intelligent, actress if you've only seen her play the shrill and annoying distaff lead in Will and Grace (unless you had caught her in the short-lived Fox series Ned and Stacey, of course). She's great in this, and here's hoping its just the most recent of many quality future film roles for her.
I'm afraid that one of these days people are just going to stop working with Hank Azaria—he steals almost every film he's ever been in. When you're stealing scenes from both Robin Williams and Nathan Lane (as the unforgettable houseboy Agador Spartacus in The Birdcage), you're doing something right. Along Came Polly is more of the same from Azaria: a funny accent delivered with an unbelievably deadpan sincerity. In fact, the majority of the "blooper reel" included as an extra consists of bad takes of one scene between Azaria and Stiller. Stiller simply couldn't keep from laughing as Azaria asked him in that horrible French accent to "luuk at me in zee eyeball." The problem here? Azaria is barely in the film. A couple of scenes in the beginning, a scene at the end, and that's it. More Azaria! It is so demanded!
A couple of decent extras are included in the package, the best being a series of deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Hamburg). These scenes were mainly deleted for time or ratings purposes, not for quality—hence, it's better than the usual "deleted scenes" reel. The "Rodolfo Goes Hollywood" short, which is a faux-E!-type behind the scenes report on Rodolfo's celebrity status, is bizarre but funny. It doesn't carry its one-note premise on for too long, either, which was a relief.
The director's commentary is run-of-the-mill but entertaining enough. Hamburg comes off as a smart and promising filmmaker, and gives decent information on the making of the film and the writing of the script. The box copy advertises it as being a "No Holds Barred!" commentary—but when I think of "no holds barred," I think of Mike Tyson telling the world that he wanted to eat his opponent's children. Hamburg certainly suffers from no bars on his holding that the film was enjoyable for him to make, but that's about it. Don't expect him to go on about how he wants to put a letter opener through Stiller's skull, or how Jen Aniston smells bad, or anything like that.
Picture and sound are average. Good digital transfer on the film, but nothing spectacular; the same for the Dolby Surround audio track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ben Stiller is clearly talented. But his "Neurotic Everyman" character—which he plays very well, but which he also seems to be playing in every film he's done recently—is starting to wear a bit thin. It's just not appropriate in this particular film, because he's so "normal" and "average" that he almost lacks any character whatsoever. Stiller is terrific at responding to situations in ways to which we, the viewers, can relate. We "feel his pain," to borrow a phrase from a former president. But throughout this film we never really see why he is, or even should be, attractive to women. He's nice, and he's stable, and he's boring as toast. Why would someone like Polly have any interest in him, especially after some of the mishaps that occur on their first date? This issue isn't an important factor in a film like Meet the Parents, where Stiller's relationship with Teri Polo isn't the point of the story. It's something that's there ab initio; the humor of the film stems from the consequences of that relationship (namely, Robert De Niro). This film fails to develop Stiller as an attractive character—and that's an important failure in a romantic comedy.
Along Came Polly is like public art. It's just…there, and while it doesn't actively stink by any analysis, it also isn't particularly memorable or noteworthy. In much the same way that few ever walk in downtown New York or Los Angeles and say, "Gee, I'm horribly offended by that 16-foot-tall metal cube," no one is ever going to demand their money back after watching this film. It's just there. I watched it, I derived some quality entertainment from it, I went on with my life. That's about as close to a definition of "average film" as I can come.
I've forgotten what the charge was already. Everyone's free to go, I guess.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director John Hamburg
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