Romantic comedies have become a calculated risk for Hollywood. A good risk is the pleasantly surprising Kate and Leopold (2001) and a bad risk is the disappointingly flat Alex and Emma (2003). Good thing there’s no risk watching Ben Stiller playing the uptight lovelorn loser again.
Stiller has played the role of nice guy caught in bad situations so often, from There’s Something About Mary (1998) to Keeping The Faith (2000), that Stiller has made stupid love look comfortable.
In director John Hamburg’s (Meet The Parents) latest, Along Came Polly, Stiller plays Rueben Feffer, a risk assessor at an insurance firm, making cautious decisions everyday of his life. Yes, he’s the guy that would avoid walking over a subway grate for fear that the bottom would fall out and he’d land in a big hole. Sadly, for poor Rueben, the bottom has fallen out. On the first day of his honeymoon, Rueben finds his lovely wife Lisa (Debra Messing) flapping flippers with a hunky French scuba instructor (Hank Azaria). Rueben returns to New York City an emotionally destroyed shell of a man. He’d like to move on and make his life meaningful, but his own masochism keeps him planted. Coerced back into society life by his wingman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) he meets Polly (Jennifer Aniston), a former childhood friend who has grown up to be a beautifully adventurous but neurotic slacker. The two hit it off and the only obstacle to overcome is Rueben’s manic self-control.
So, Rueben embarks on an awkward quest to win her affection. Rueben carries his phobias into his dates like an unwanted third wheel but somehow he stumbles through. What if his stomach can’t handle Indian food? Who cares if he can’t dance salsa? There’s something about Polly and he wants to impress the girl even if he’s plunging a toilet with a $200 loofa or dancing salsa like a Mexican jumping bean under a hot light.
It’s refreshing watching Rueben ascend to a respectable level of cool as Polly teaches him that life and love is never calculated. She teaches him that a wild side is healthy and the sparks fly safely without anyone really getting burned in the game of love. Stiller has perfected his role by now and Aniston exudes a convincing and caring warmth and heart, thankfully making more of this role than her underwhelming performance in Bruce Almighty.
Along Came Polly does take some risks in being downright funny, like the embarrassing laugh out loud bathroom moment Rueben has his with boss (Alec Baldwin). But, it’s Hoffman, dominating every scene he’s in with his personality bigger than life, who steals most of the laughs. Hoffman is outrageously hilarious as Sandy, the has-been Brat-pack actor type who still believes he’s got a chance at old glory. To Rueben, he’s the perfect friend, with enough confidence to tell him how moments in life will work out. On occasion he even tells Rueben how things can work out more than others by use of a word that will be the most popular amongst boys in early 2004.
No overall risk is taken to break new ground for the modern romantic comedy. It might even be said that Along Came Polly is a safe movie. However, there are some gut-busting, worthy moments that blend nicely with the lighter morals of the story. The only danger that lurks is whether or not Stiller can survive this role one more time to keep audiences interested.