Ben Stiller has the rare distinction of starring in two of the funniest American films of the last decade, the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary and David O. Russell's lesser known Flirting with Disaster. Stiller also has the rather more common distinction of starring in a lot of utter rubbish. It will probably come as no surprise that Along Came Polly, out on video this week, falls into the latter category.
In Polly, Stiller plays Ruben Feffer, an insurance risk assessor who is predictably terrified of any risk in his personal life. (Think a comic--or would-be comic--variation on The Conversation's Harry Caul.) Shortly after his new bride leaves him during their honeymoon, he falls for former middle-school classmate Polly (Jennifer Aniston), a free spirit who teaches him to live on the edge by eating nuts that other people have touched and learning to salsa dance. That's right: Stiller doesn't quit his tedious day job to write a novel or visit Africa; he learns to salsa dance. Wait, I almost forgot: He also recommends his company insure an appallingly bad-risk client, and shreds some perfectly nice throw pillows that are somehow supposed to symbolize the barrenness of his life. That's basically it. The plot never develops, the only memorable jokes are the ones that are memorably bad, and neither lead comes close to making us care whether they get together or not. Though Aniston is onscreen a good deal, her character never really makes any sense. (You get a truer feel for her Rachel Green from any five-minute slice of "Friends.") And while we spend even more time in Stiller's presence, all we ever really learn is that he's uptight and prone to occasional fits of petulance.
That, of course, describes most of the roles Stiller has played in his ten-year film career. Michael Grates (Stiller's character in Reality Bites), Mel Coplin (Flirting with Disaster), Ted Stroehman (There's Something About Mary), Mr. Furious (Mystery Men), Greg Focker (Meet the Parents), Derek Zoolander (Zoolander), Chas Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums), Alex Rose (Duplex), and Ruben Feffer (Along Came Polly) may not be quite interchangeable (some make more money than others, for instance, and only one imagines himself a superhero), but they generally fit the same mold: neurotic, self-involved, and frequently peevish. This schtick may be less over-the-top than, say, Adam Sandler's sensitive-guy-who-nonetheless-could-blow-at-any-minute routine, but it's no less schticky.
This too, is not terribly surprising: Comic actors, like dramatic ones, have their comfortable niches, from Bill Murray's sardonic schlubbism to Jim Carrey's manic plasticity. What separates Stiller from such performers is this: His schtick isn't funny. A good comedian has to be able to transcend mediocre material--imagine, for a moment, any actor other than Carrey trying to get away with Ace Ventura--and Stiller has yet to show he can do this. His comedy is too tight, too angry, and too reactive. It's the comedy of frustration, which requires viewers either to empathize with his ritual humiliations--in Polly these include mashing his face against an opponent's fat, hairy belly during a basketball game and using a precious hand-embroidered towel to wipe his post-diarrheal bottom--or to revel in them. As the protagonist of most of his films, Stiller is clearly supposed to have our empathy, but in practice he rarely seems to deserve it. He is selfish and ill-tempered without expanding either characteristic to a comic extreme. If Hugh Grant's character in Love Actually was an underdog in overdog's clothing, Stiller frequently plays the reverse: a character with all the unpleasant emotional trappings of a driven, Type A personality, but little of the success. Greater comic gifts could render this shortcoming inconsequential: Neither of the obvious models for Stiller's brand of quasi-semitic neurosis--Woody Allen and Albert Brooks--built their careers on likeability. But Stiller lacks Allen's nervous blend of self-deprecation and grandiosity and Brooks's raw, sometimes painful neediness (not to mention someone as gifted as either of them writing his lines). A closer parallel to Stiller's onscreen persona might be Joel Fleischman, the Rob Morrow character from the early 1990s TV series "Northern Exposure." The main function of Morrow's uptight, New York-bred character was to serve as a foil for all the quirky, lovable Alaskans he encountered in the quasi-magical town of Cicely. Stiller has been at his best in similar circumstances, playing the stressed-out straight man pinballing between weirdos in Flirting, Mary, and to a lesser extent Tenenbaums. But when he lacks strong supporting performances, Stiller's underlying anxiety and aggression threaten to overwhelm a film. At best, the result is an average comedy like Meet the Parents. More typically, it's a train wreck like Zoolander, Duplex, or Polly.