The road to bad movies is paved with good intentions
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.
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