In 10 Words or Less
The road to bad movies is paved with good intentions
If you're a producer and you manage to get together a cast featuring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Christopher Walken, Amy Poehler and Rachel Weisz, it's a sure bet that your next move is to start figuring out what to spend your coming millions on. Hopefully, the producers of Envy didn't start spending their millions before the film was released. Otherwise, they were in for some severe disappointment.
The story was simply enough, which is the basis for most good comedies. Nick (Black) is a dreamer, who works at a sandpaper factory with his best friend and cul-de-sac neighbor Tim (Stiller), a straight-laced worker bee. While Nick's head is filled with pie-in-the-sky ideas, Tim's only thoughts are of performance charts and keeping focused on his job. So when Nick offers to cut Tim in on his latest idea, a spray that eliminates doggie poo, Tim declines. It's the worst decision he ever makes...to that point.
Vapoorize, Nick's spray, makes him a white-trash multi-millionaire with no interest in leaving his middle-class neighborhood or his best pal. Meanwhile, Tim's regret over not joining in with Nick quickly becomes envy, spurred on by his wife (Weisz) and her annoyance at not being rich like Nick. Though Nick spends a ton to keep Tim happy, it only makes him madder and more jealous. That green monster causes serious damage in a drunken accident that crushes Nick, and forces Tim to scramble to cover.
Stiller's playing the same role he's played plenty of times before; the button-down guy in a situation that's well beyond his control. His lack of overreaction makes every freak-out all the more believable, while his ability to sell a joke that shouldn't deliver is better than just about any comic actor working. Black doesn't get the benefit of a similarly fitting role, seemingly trapped in a part that's simply too "real" for him. Unlike Stiller, Black's at his best when manic, and this movie barely allows him to be so. In smaller roles, Poehler, as Black's new-money wife, and Weisz are good, though underused.
Walken doesn't suffer the same problem. In fact, he may be a bit overexposed in this film, playing a drifter named the J-Man, who advises Tim, badly. Serving to further the plot mainly, he also gives the film it's only real energy. With Black straightjacketed, Walken has to carry the movie for much of the second half. Unfortunately for the movie, that's when the comedy gives way to a darker plot that's not very entertaining, before doing another 180 on its way to a wholly unsatisfying ending.
Many will compare this film with another Levinson film, Toys, another star-filled movie that failed to score at the box office. But while Toys didn't work as a money-maker, it was still a quality film with a plot and a message. Envy is a pace-less, laugh-less mess. That the film was nearly shelved until School of Rock made Black a household name says a lot. It probably should have stayed on the shelf.
Dreamworks released Envy in full-screen and anamorphic widescreen on the same disc. The choice of aspect ratio can be made at the beginning of the DVD, after the previews. An animated main menu leads to static menus featuring extras, scene selections, audio options (English and French 5.1 tracks) and subtitles, including English, French and Spanish. On the extras menu, there's a secondary scene selection menu, which provides access to Black's "funniest" moments in the movie. The movie is packaged in a keepcase, with no insert.
Being a recent film, and a Levinson product as well, this DVD does look very good, with bright colors and excellent detail. Both transfers look good, without any evidence of artifacts or compression. On the audio side, both tracks are in 5.1 Surround Sound, but you'd be hard-pressed to pick out any reason why. A dialogue-heavy comedy, the movie's sound hardly demands such treatment and doesn't deliver any real "theater" experience.
Apparently, with the film revealed to the world, no one wanted to talk about Envy, as there are no commentaries or behind-the-scenes featurettes included on this DVD. All you get here is a pretty pointless photo gallery, cast and crew bios and a lengthy set of text production notes that shed little light on the movie.
The Bottom Line
This is the kind of movie film academics should study. How Levinson was able to put together an all-star comedy cast, only to have the final film turn out so bad, is a subject that should be examined, dissected and argued in the halls of film schools for years to come. More than likely, though, it will simply go away, only to reappear on Comedy Central six or seven times a day. If you can hold out until then, you needn't check out this DVD. But if your curiosity gets the better of you, you can rent it and share in our collective shame.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.