January 30, 2004

Stiller finds love with Aniston, Riskmaster 3000

Let me preface this with the fact that I have been anticipating this movie since the days when the Internet Movie Database listed it as Untitled John Hamburg Project. If I didn't know otherwise, I'd say that John Hamburg camped out inside my (nonexistent) TiVo and then, upon noting my Must-See-TV-heavy viewing schedule, cast the movie accordingly. The pitch would go something like this:

"Well, first and foremost, we've got to get Jennifer Aniston on board. And let's put her with Ben Stiller, and throw Debra Messing in there, too. And how about Hank Azaria, just for good measure. And there's your movie."

"This is all well and good, Mr. Hamburg, but what about the plot?"

"Plot? Who needs that?"

I say this in jest, of course. Polly does have a plot, albeit a fairly lightweight one. It is one driven by Reuben Feffer (Stiller), a risk analyst who lives his job, as every plot point centers around his assorted neurotic quirks. Every risk he takes—from walking over subway grates to eating out—is calculated to the nth degree. So when his Riskmaster 3000 software determines that Lisa Kramer (Messing) is his perfect mate, he gets married to her in a ceremony that is large, romantic, and above all, safe. The blissful newlyweds remain so for about a day, after which Lisa leaves Reuben on their honeymoon for French scuba instructor Claude (Azaria).

Rejected and dejected, Reuben heads back to New York, where he is greeted by an outpouring of pity that can only be described as embarrassing. In an effort to take Reuben's mind off Lisa, his friend Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) drags Reuben along to a party where his junior high classmate Polly (Aniston) just happens to be working as a waitress. Of course, the commitment-phobic free spirit whom Polly has grown up to be is a far cry from the Mathlete/Model U.N. delegate whom Reuben remembers, so guess what? Hilarity ensues, as the opposites slowly but surely fall in love.

Ben Stiller has played hapless loser types since There's Something About Mary, and he has played intensely corporate types since Reality Bites. So this role, a mélange of the two types, is not exactly a stretch for him. Nevertheless, he is both endearing and hilariously funny, and the flip side is that this is a role that does, in fact, play to his strengths. Similarly, the role of Polly is, as written, nothing but a more bohemian version of Aniston's typical girl-next-door role; however, she does plenty with what she's given. Her portrayal of Polly deftly balances the flighty and the more grounded qualities of the character, creating a likable, realistic character. The interactions between the two leads never fall into the carpe diem clichés that are so common with "free-spirit-meets-uptight-guy" films. Polly is not here to teach Reuben a lesson; it turns out that she is just as flawed and fearful as he is.

One thing that must be said for this movie is that it does not waste time. Unlike many semi-predictable romantic comedies, this one remains interesting throughout and never feels like it's simply prolonging the inevitable. With a strong supporting cast that includes Messing, Azaria, Hoffman, and Alec Baldwin (in a wonderfully slimy turn as Reuben's boss), this film has no weak link and no dull moment. While Polly only does that which has been done before, it does it very, very well.