Working more in the old school tradition of screwball, writer/director John Hamburg had many films to mine from. Bringing Up Baby, The Mad Miss Manton, heck, even What's Up, Doc? with Babs Streisand could have been useful homework in the tried but true story of the straight-laced guy falling for the kooky, disorganized young woman. Of course we've seen it before, but when we actually LIKE the stars (in this case Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston), we'll happily watch their courtship snowball into the inevitable happy ending of, "I'll destroy my life for you." In Baby, it was Katharine Hepburn destroying Cary Grant's hard work of reconstructing an entire dinosaur, in Polly, it's an OCD-suffering Stiller eating peanuts off the dirty pavement. Can't we think of something a little more cinematic?
OK, so it's not fair to compare a classic, Howard Hawks film to the latest date comedy, but then again, why not? It's not like Stiller isn't talented enough to handle better material (There's Something About Mary is a modern romantic classic in this critic's book, and he has a great deal to do with it). Stiller, who's made a niche for himself as the hapless nice guy with minor anger issues and a soft heart, can draw a viewer in so well, we often dislike the woman he's falling for (as in the case with Meet the Parents, where we want him to dump that insensitive vacuous blonde). But in Polly, like Mary, we're fond of Aniston's character and, in spite of the film's flaws, root for the couple. But again, why didn't they give us more to root for?
Stiller plays the terribly named Reuben Feffer, a risk assessor for a big New York insurance company where he can revel in his fear of the world. Things appear to be going swimmingly when he marries his sweetheart, Lisa Kramer (Debra Messing—in a very small role) and the two take a tropical honeymoon. But on that honeymoon, he walks in on Lisa having sex with a French scuba diving instructor (Hank Azaria—hilarious and naked). Lisa runs off with the Frenchman and Reuben returns home dejected, rejected, and humiliated. There's a terrific sequence where he returns to work and receives the "poor you" pats on the back. He even gets a gift basket with the book, "Dating for Dummies."
Meanwhile he confides in his friend Sandy (the ridiculously talented Philip Seymour Hoffman), a washed up child actor, and listens to his nutty boss Stan Indursky (the once leading man now character actor Alec Baldwin) discuss what a whore Lisa is. In short, no one's really helping him through the pain.
By chance, he meets an old junior high classmate Polly Prince (Aniston) at a pretentious art opening. They are attracted and the two embark on a perilous courtship. She takes him out for spicy food, but he has irritable bowel syndrome. She takes him Salsa dancing, but he can't dance. Her apartment is messy; he's a neat-freak. She's never had a grounded, serious relationship; he WANTS to be married. And worse, she has a dirty, blind pet ferret.
So here we have fodder for some funny stuff. But the film never knows what to do and where to go. Instead of giving us more Polly, who is a potentially lovable character (Aniston is incredibly good here, once again proving she's underrated onscreen), the film has Lisa return for the stock what-will-Reuben-do scenario. And rather than addressing and playing with the chemistry between the crazy chick and the uptight guy (which can be terribly sexy), the film falls on bathroom humor and extra ways to humiliate Ben Stiller. The Farrelly Brothers can balance the two—the gross-out with the sweet human touch—but Hamburg cannot. The film is clipped and lazy. Thanks to the leads, though, it's not completely terrible—just frustrating: we can see all the fun that could have occurred.