The romantic comedy Along Came Polly succeeds – and the verb is used lightly – strictly by virtue of arithmetic. It’s as simple as this: It gets many, if not most, of the laughs it goes for. Writer-director John Hamburg, who penned Meet the Parents and the goofy Zoolander, doesn’t aspire to anything particularly original, or smart. But he does get hysterical performances out of supporting players Hank Azaria, Alec Baldwin, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Debra Messing. And his protagonist Ben Stiller is enough of an Everyman for the character to resonate with audiences, even if the formulaic story about a staid businessman (Stiller) who goes for a flighty waitress (Jennifer Aniston) doesn’t.
Is there an indignity Stiller hasn’t suffered? Known for close encounters with disgusting substances in the likes of There’s Something About Mary, Stiller, playing risk assessor Reuben Feffer, is in top form again. Here he collides with grease dripping from pizza, the sweaty, hairy belly of a guy playing basketball, and the contents of a full toilet bowl that overflows in his date’s apartment. That bathroom scene, which begins when Stiller faces an empty roll of toilet paper and no replacement in sight, exemplifies Hamburg’s, well, competence when it comes to gross-out comedy. Most movie bathroom scenes – especially those in teen flicks– aren’t remotely funny. But this is scream, mostly because the setup isn’t so outrageous that average folks can’t relate. And the kicker, involving a hand-embroidered towel, really brings the joke home.
Amusing as they are, the lowbrow antics aren’t the sole source of Along Came Polly’s appeal. One by one, the actors in supporting roles knock out so many dynamite characterizations, it simply doesn’t matter that the romance is tepid – or ultimately incomprehensible. Messing nails her role as Reuben’s blushing bride, who proceeds to dump him on their honeymoon. During the wedding reception scene at the film’s outset, with spot-on nervous giggles, she exudes that sweet but feigned modesty displayed by people put in the spotlight.
With an utterly silly French accent, absurdly abundant hairstyle and buffed up physique, Azaria is riotous as the scuba instructor who runs off with Messing. But Baldwin, as Reuben’s gloriously distasteful boss, equals him, as does Hoffman, in the movie’s quirkiest part. A former child actor who had one hit in a John Hughes-like movie, Reuben’s friend Sandy still thinks he has the chops, and he’ll do nothing short of assigning himself multiple roles in a community theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Every time he shows up, he’s worth a laugh.
Unfortunately, the genuine comedy in Along Came Polly is somehow unto itself and doesn’t draw from what’s essentially a lackluster plot. Although Aniston is fine as the freewheeling Polly, the character isn’t fleshed out enough to make it clear why she’d fall for a controlled fellow like Reuben. Happily, Hamburg doesn’t make Reuben a total geek. While the guy is averse to risk, he’s not nerdy to the point of being an outcast.
But why does Polly make so few compromises when it comes to their relationship? Reuben is the one who has to make all the concessions, which, alas, come in the form of cliches: He gets used to eating spicy, ethnic food, he learns salsa to accommodate her yen for dancing at underground clubs. Why, in Hollywood, is the sensible person the "wrong" person and the one who needs to change?
Perhaps the question is too much to ask of a simple entertainment like Along Came Polly. The movie doesn’t represent cinema at its height, but it will evoke more than a chuckle or two. And that’s not a half-bad way to spend 90 minutes.
– Leslie Katz