There are three things you need to know about Barry Levinson’s Envy:
- Filmed in 2002, it tested so poorly that the studio was going to release it straight-to-video, but Jack Black’s star turn in School of Rock forced them to hold it for a brief theatrical run.
- The plot is so predictable and the punches telegraphed so far in advance that at the 17-minute mark, my wife blurted out what would happen and when (she hit on all counts).
- There is a subplot that involves Christopher Walken, a dead horse, and a runaway merry-go-round. Of the three, I don’t know which is the most embarrassing fact, but I imagine Walken’s presence will prove to have the most lasting shame. And while we’re on the subject, what in the hell was Barry Levinson thinking? Fine, he didn’t deserve his Oscar for Rain Man to begin with, and he’s known for pissing away his dignity on a semi-annual basis (Bandits, An Everlasting Piece, Jimmy Hollywood, Toys), but he did give us Wag the Dog, so I can’t call for his public execution quite yet. Or can I?
Envy may be his biggest misfire to date; an unfunny mess that substitutes hysteria for wit, and mines, probes, and boils fifteen minutes of sketch material for every last ounce of possible interest, yanking us along for an unforgivable ninety-five. And at the center of it all is the most drawn out poop joke in cinema history: a product called “Va-POO-rize,” a spray that dissolves shit in an instant. For once — and just this once — the test audiences were right on the money.
Ben Stiller, perhaps America’s most overexposed actor (or “performer,” which seems less an abuse of the English language), plays Tim Dingman, an overachieving company man at 3M, who seems to have it all, including an annoying slacker friend named Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black). Nick is going nowhere, and one day comes up with an idea (the Va-POO-rize mentioned earlier) that he insists will take the country by storm. Of course, Tim poo-poos the idea (an obvious pun? fuck off), and rather than contribute a mere $2,000 to help get the project started, he basks in his smug superiority that Nick will fail. Cut to eighteen months later, and the product is a big hit. Nick is appearing on infomercials, has a grand mansion, his own vineyard, butlers, and the finest cars money can buy. Meanwhile, Tim is still the same old guy, only now he’s fending off a resentful wife and his own feelings of — needless to say — envy. It’s eating him up inside; so much so that he blows up at work, gets fired, and stumbles off to a bar where he meets Walken (playing a guy named J-Man). J-Man rambles on about nothing in particular (his opening line is, “You know the best job I was ever fired from? Pretzel kiosk!”), and then encourages Tim to seek his revenge. Isn’t this fun?
Tim then gets drunk, grabs a bow and arrow, and proceeds to shoot (accidentally) Nick’s prized horse. In a panic, Tim buries the horse in a hole that was originally meant for a swimming pool, but thinking better of it, decides instead to solicit J-Man’s help, dig up the corpse, strap it to the hood of a truck, drive it out in a rainstorm, and dump it in a river, where it will of course float by during one of Nick’s big speeches. But that’s later. Hours later. Fuck it, a lifetime later. Until then, Tim feels guilty, but is relieved when Nick offers to bring him on as a 50/50 partner. J-Man is offended by such selling out, and blackmails Tom for $50,000, or else he’ll tell Nick everything. But Tim accidentally shoots J-Man in the back with an arrow while trying to confess to Nick, which leads to a scene where J-Man stands in the middle of the street and admits that he’s too scared to continue. He walks away with no more talk of money. Oh, but I forgot to tell you about the big business trip to Italy where Tim and Nick walk around with the Italian press while they spray Va-POO-rize all over the street, much to the delight of citizens everywhere.
But there’s trouble back at home. You see, Nick’s wife is running for Congress and she’s being questioned about the safety of the poop product. “Where does the shit go?” they cry, in one of the sillier mantras I’ve heard in quite some time. Oh fuck it, ever. But as my wife knew the moment it was mentioned that Mrs. Vanderpark was running as the “environmental candidate,” the product proves to be a health hazard, bankrupting both Nick and Tim. Now I know what you’re thinking — isn’t that exactly what happened in The Jerk, where Steve Martin’s opti-grab made him rich, only to ruin him in the end as it made millions of people cross-eyed? Hell, there’s even an auction scene and movers clearing out the estate. And just like that 1979 classic, Envy features a dawn after the darkness. While watching expensive items be hauled away, Tim gets an idea — what about a new way to sell flan? And why not? So as the film ends, Tim and Nick have a new infomercial, this time selling “Pocket Flan!” to millions of eager consumers. J-Man even shows up in the audience, inquiring about the possibilities for those who are lactose intolerant. And with that, so ends what is always a remarkable achievement in the world of film — the comedy without a laugh; the movie devoid of entertainment value. The hour and a half that would have been better spent masturbating, or reading, or offering up one’s scrotum to the nearest staple gun.
Trivia Note: Nick has two license plates that are visible in the film. They are: “CACA KING” and “POO CZAR.” Mr. Levinson is now awaiting your letters, cards, and explosives-laden parcels.