Courtship as Obstacle Course: Ben Stiller Flirts With Disaster Again

The Ben Stiller romantic comedy is by now a genre unto itself—one premised on pain, humiliation, and the star's endearing masochism. Unsurprisingly, Along Came Polly imagines courtship as a hazardous steeplechase. Before landing Jennifer Aniston's carefree party girl, our hero must first endure an emasculating abandonment, many gastrointestinally traumatic spicy meals, and (in a dutiful nod to There's Something About Mary's legendary mortifications) a devastating bathroom episode. This one involves a blind ferret, a fancy Scandinavian loofah, and a severe flare-up of irritable bowel syndrome—for better or worse, the film doesn't quite explore all possible permutations.

Largely innocuous and forgettable, Polly lacks Mary's romantic pathos and psychosexual anxiety and is a few squirmy set pieces shy of Meet the Parents, which Polly writer-director John Hamburg co-scripted (he also had a hand in the beautifully unhinged, Stiller-directed Zoolander). The movie simply coasts on the Annie Hall pairing of neurotic Jew and serenely scattered shiksa. Stiller's Reuben is an uptight New York insurance analyst, destined for a mortgage and the burbs when his wife (Debra Messing) leaves him on their honeymoon for a diving instructor, "ze scubah keeng" of St. Barts (Hank Azaria, with streaked Fabio hair and Malkovichian French accent). Rebounding with the touching resilience of the habitually downtrodden, Reuben is soon pursuing world-traveling extrovert Polly (Aniston) and learning not to live by the risk/reward calculations he so assiduously applies at work. What she gets out of the deal is less obvious—the role is so underwritten and Aniston's performance so weirdly opaque that most of the time, Polly doesn't even seem to particularly like Reuben.

At its most perverse, Along Came Polly is a gross-out comedy that's more interested in grossing out its protagonist than the audience. The customary deluge of icky matter (sweat, urine, pizza grease) is not merely decorative but a central psychological theme, a dragon to be slayed by Reuben, the exceedingly squeamish product of a mother who made him "afraid of everything"—not least the E. coli potentially lurking in a bowl of bar snacks. Polly, for her part, subjects Reuben to a series of ethnic adventures—introducing him to tandoori and bulgogi, dragging him to an "underground" salsa club—and in the process liberates him from an existence of bacterial dread and actuarial caution. Stiller elicits the requisite sympathy but is hamstrung by leading-man expectations. Conversely, in a one-note supporting part, the great Philip Seymour Hoffman suggests the quirkier and more volatile movie that could have been. As Reuben's best friend, a former teen actor now resentfully stuck in the role of Judas in a community theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Hoffman steals his every scene—and hijacks opening night to boot, with the announcement that he'll be playing Jesus as well.

 
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