A somewhat perky, character-driven comedy of humiliation, Barry Levinson’s Envy is named for that “green-eyed monster,” which, per the Bard, “doth mock the meat it feeds on.” The beef, in this case, is the uncontrollable resentment that suburban paterfamilias Tim (Ben Stiller) feels for the fantastic overnight success enjoyed by his ineffably obnoxious neighbor and best friend Nick (Jack Black).
Movies are predicated on the supposition that life’s unfair, but how often do they admit it? Where dull Tim is the scenario’s diligent ant, his feckless pal is the goofy grasshopper who vaults into the economic stratosphere when he invents a way to atomize dog feces with an aerosol mist. (“Spray some on my butt!” he shrieks when Vapoorize tests out.) The new-minted entrepreneur also proves to be a genius of conspicuous consumption, tooling around in an eye-searing yellow Lamborghini with the vanity license plate CACA KING. It’s the victory lap of all time. Rather than construct his outsize trophy mansion on the beach at Malibu, Nick builds this museum of bad taste, complete with bowling alley, on his own lot, under the power lines. It’s also directly across the street from incredulous Tim, who declined to invest two grand in Nick’s scheme and thus qualifies to be the great American loser. As Black does his big-kid routine, Stiller—abetted by Rachel Weisz’s game performance as his spouse—goes into a slow burn and then a breakdown that lasts nearly the entire movie.
Written by Steve Adams, Envy is predicated on one good comic idea and one great one. The spectacle of a man consumed with jealousy by his friend’s success is richly commonplace; the notion that success is predicated, literally, on making shit disappear is close to cosmic. One can only imagine what a world-class cynic like Billy Wilder, a vulgar Freudian like Mel Brooks, or the Stiller who directed the truly savage social satire Cable Guy would have done with the premise. Oh well.
Envy is a less egregiously sweetened sourball comedy than the audience-conning Matchstick Men. Still, filled with gags that don’t work—Christopher Walken’s sodden bum of mystery or the merry-go-round that speeds out of control in the last reel—Envy is ultimately more amusing than hilarious, and sometimes less than that. Levinson has his own internal Vapoorizer. His greatest trick is making the script’s nastiness disappear.