The character Ben Stiller plays in Along Came Polly is such a predictable variation on “The Ben Stiller Character” that we feel as if we've seen the entire movie before it even begins. As he has done in movies ranging from Meet the Parents to Envy to Night at the Musuem, Stiller plays an uptight, neurotic character who is thrown into a variety of uncomfortable situations. This one is named Ruben Pfeiffer, a professional risk management analyst living in New York City. See, Ruben calculates the risk factor in every single thing he does, and goes out of his way to avoid doing anything even remotely dangerous. He walks around subway grates! He refuses to eat bar peanuts! He declines an opportunity to go scuba diving! I don't suppose I'm spoiling much by telling you that there's a scene in the third act in which Ruben eats peanuts off of a dirty sidewalk.
The film opens with Ruben's marriage to Lisa (Debra Messing, The Wedding Date), a sensible, attractive real estate agent. Alas, things quickly go awry on their honeymoon: Ruben catches Lisa knocking boots (well, flippers) with a Fabio-esque scuba instructor (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons). Upon returning home, the dejected Ruben runs into a childhood friend: Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston, Friends), a free-spirited but commitment-phobic waitress. Eventually, the two go out on a date, and the relationship plays out as predictably as you might imagine: she makes him uncomfortable by forcing him into risky situations, and he makes her uncomfortable when he tries to advance their relationship.
God knows I've seen enough movies like this to be able to see certain things coming, but Along Came Polly foreshadows its gags with the subtlety of a wrecking ball. Consider this exchange between Ruben and his best friend Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master):
Sandy: “You let her pick the restaurant?”
Ruben: “Yeah. I shouldn't have let her pick the restaurant?”
Sandy: “You have irritable bowel syndrome. If she picks any ethnic food, you're screwed.”
Sure enough, within the next ten minutes, Ruben has inexplicably agreed to dine on spicy Indian cuisine, and a few minutes after that we're treated to a sequence involving explosive diarrhea, a clogged toilet and an intrusive ferret. The fact that we're seeing a ferret-centric bathroom scene in a movie co-starring Philip Seymour Hoffman triggers memories of The Big Lebowski, in the same way that seeing a sandbox triggers memories of the Sahara Desert.
Speaking of Hoffman, he's easily the best thing about the film despite the fact that he's trapped in what modern audiences might refer to as “The Josh Gad Role.” See, the joke is that he's fat and clumsy, so within the first five minutes we've witnessed one scene of Sandy begging a chef to squirt cake icing in his mouth and two (!) scenes of Sandy tripping and falling. A three-word line that typifies his character's behavior: “I just sharted.” Despite all this, Hoffman brings dimension and humanity to the part. Sandy's a former child star attempting to come to terms with the fact that he's now an ordinary has-been, and Hoffman finds traces of pathos in that. He seems real even when he's ridiculous, which is more than I can say for anyone else in the movie.
Alas, almost every scene involving Stiller and Aniston is tired at best and agonizing at worst. Stiller's on autopilot, and Aniston's commitment paranoia is so underdeveloped that it feels entirely phony. Aggravatingly (but inevitably), these two eventually arrive at the sweeping moral conclusions served up by so many half-assed rom-coms: letting go of your inhibitions is a must, marriage/long-term commitment is ultimately the key to true happiness and aggravatingly crazy behavior eventually turns into something adorable if you give it enough time. Sure, and there's no greater way to accentuate an amusing line than by cutting to wacky ferret reaction shots.
Along Came Polly
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Year: 2004