Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller) holds Rodolpho, his love interest's pet ferret. (courtesy photo)

Formulaic gross-out humor doesn't work in 'Along Came Polly'

Some day soon, a sharp grad student somewhere is going to write a dissertation entitled "Snot, Flatus, and Assorted Secretions: An Epistemology of the Farrelly Brothers." The paper will dive right into the toilet bowl of contemporary gross-out humor and, in language too scholarly for laypeople, show why certain things that worked in There's Something About Mary should never be attempted on screen again.

For those of us not enrolled in Film Studies programs, there is Along Came Polly. Awash in sweat, urine, and intestinal gas, the movie's main lesson comes in the form of a long sequence exploiting a severe case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome; lifted from an old Seinfeld episode and accessorized with crotch-level camera angles, it lingers far too long on a stale, repulsive gag. In the end, the sequence cops out, making events go hyperbolically awry while impossibly sanitizing what's shown onscreen.

Polly is far from the only film to plug scatological humor into otherwise mainstream comedy, but it's awfully obvious in its Xeroxing of the Something About Mary playbook: Here again we have everyman Ben Stiller, an uptight bachelor (Reuben Feffer, dumped by his wife during their honeymoon) in an improbable romance with a carefree beauty (Aniston). Again, Stiller's scene-stealing best buddy gives him unfortunate sex advice; and in the cavalcade of humiliations he faces, the worst arrives in his prospective girlfriend's bathroom.

Along Came Polly

Dir. & writ. John Hamburg; feat. Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Debra Messing, Alec Baldwin, Hank Azaria (PG-13)
Screenwriter/director Hamburg lifts liberally from other movies: From Manhattan he takes a last-minute dash through NYC's streets; from Grosse Pointe Blank he takes Hank Azaria and "Let My Love Open the Door"; from Chasing Amy he takes the perpetually silent character who abruptly spouts the moral of the story. All these elements worked better the first time.

Polly has high points; in their few minutes onscreen, Azaria and Philip Seymour Hoffman (slumming like crazy here) go over-the-top for some solid laughs. But those are small joys in a comedy where the leads hardly earn five giggles between them. Here you would never guess what funny actresses Aniston and Debra Messing (who plays Reuben's estranged wife) can be; and Stiller, who does well with either full-on satire like Zoolander or wholly straight-man roles, is disappointingly muddled. His brightest moment is a passionate critique of his one-time wife's tendency to stock her bed with more than a dozen useless pillows.

It should be noted that, at the preview screening I attended, many in the packed theater laughed throughout. Near the back of the crowd, one woman's appreciation of Stiller's troubled bowels seemed to threaten her own health. Judging from the box office success of movies that have little purpose other than humiliating the actor, There's Something About Ben that brings out our inner sadist. Perhaps movies like this one and the overrated Meet the Parents are serving some useful therapeutic purpose, supplying a bland whipping boy to an anxious nation. Then again, maybe they're simply a lowest-common-denominator time-filler until the next genuinely funny comedy comes along. •

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