by Marty Demarest

Right after the credits roll, Envy tries its first joke. As they're driving to work, Nick Vanderpark (Jack Black) notices a spot of maple syrup on his best friend Tim Dingman's pants. Even before you know what he's doing, he reaches over, sticks his finger in it, and tastes it. Tim is annoyed, as anyone would be. But as only Ben Stiller can, he says, "Don't taste my pants."

On general principle, I enjoy movies that kick things off with a pants joke. The problem is, it isn't the funniest thing happening. It's the way that the two interact like ordinary guys, bantering back and forth, that makes the scene amusing. Stiller and Black play characters, which is a rare thing to find in a comedy these days. They keep their histrionics in check, and join director Barry Levinson for a lighthearted meditation on the easiest of vices.

That vice itself enters Envy when Nick, a perpetual dreamer, invents a product called Vapoorize. (It's a testament to the film's writing that I probably don't need to tell you Vapoorize makes feces disappear.) In what seems like a tacky idea, Levinson and writer Steve Adams have identified the vulgar core of contemporary life. Envy aims straight for the infomercial mentality of America.

After Vapoorize becomes a phenomenal success, Nick builds his family a palatial mansion across the street from the Dingmans -- not out of spite, but because he genuinely loves them. Bitter and resentful about his best friend's success, however, Tim drives to work each day, saving money for a bean-shaped swimming pool. The parts work for both comedians. Black has always been believable as a kind, genuinely good person. And Stiller is in his element, playing the straight man with the tumultuous inner life. Seeing how long it takes for him to freak out is part of his charm.

Levinson, normally the coolest of directors, doesn't seem to trust his material, however, and attempts to make Tim's crisis get out of hand. He brings in a dead horse. He brings in bribery and extortion. He even brings in Christopher Walken (as "The J-Man"), who does a great job and acts like the tequila he found while filming Man on Fire finally kicked in.

But the result ruins the joke that Envy had been so patient about setting up. We live in a world that comes pre-packaged. Why shouldn't a movie make jokes about the minutiae that manipulates our lives (instant coffee, swimming pools, pudding)? Of course, those jokes aren't going to be hysterical; instant coffee-humor rarely is. But there's truth in Envy. When Nick has the idea for Vapoorize, he conceives of the function, the name and the marketing campaign for it before he even has a product to sell. Such is the world in which we live. Any serious black comedy about that world would have to come across as a bit shallow. Like a poop joke in the age of Wal-Mart.

Publication date: 05/06/04

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