Writer-director John Hamburg does everything he can to pair up Ben Stiller's stiff, safety-first corporate man with Jennifer Aniston's free spirit in "Along Came Polly," but the two are so fundamentally incompatible that story loses credibility long before the gags stop coming.

Writer-director John Hamburg does everything he can to pair up Ben Stiller’s stiff, safety-first corporate man with Jennifer Aniston’s free spirit in “Along Came Polly,” but the two are so fundamentally incompatible that story loses credibility long before the gags stop coming. Without the outrageous, talking-point scenes that broad, post-Farrelly exercises like this depend on, pic will do merely modest date biz in the dead of January, followed by better ancillary biz.

Repping Hamburg’s third project in a row with Stiller (both worked on “Meet the Parents,” “Zoolander”), “Polly” is neither as outlandish nor as funny as their previous collaborations. “Polly” is, however, several shades better in all moviemaking departments than Hamburg’s spindly 1998 Sundance debut, “Safe Men.”

In addition, the pic’s aces supporting cast — Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Debra Messing, Hank Azaria, Bryan Brown, Michele Lee and Bob Dishy — mask the slightness of the odd couple foolery, making many weak scenes click. Their perfs are a testimony to how many fine actors in Hollywood are constantly in search of a good comedy.

Even if his best man Sandy (Hoffman) is prone to falling on his ass, groom Reuben Feffer (Stiller) has a smooth wedding and start to his marriage to Lisa (Messing), capped with a St. Barts honeymoon. But cautious Reuben, ever aware of dangers as a risk assessment analyst for a big insurance firm, begs off a scuba diving venture led by Frenchman Claude (Azaria, initially naked, astoundingly buff and pouring on the mock accent). Later, Reuben discovers Claude and bride Lisa doing the nasty on Claude’s schooner.

Reuben returns to Gotham, where his boss, Stan Indursky (Baldwin, amusingly pitching his voice into a throaty New Yawk register), assigns him to do a full analysis on hot-shot Aussie CEO Leland Van Lew (Brown) to see if he’s insurable.

Meanwhile, best friend Sandy drags Reuben along to an art gallery opening where Reuben encounters Polly (Aniston), who’s serving drinks.

Between his inept way of approaching her and her borderline-insane indecisiveness, it’s a miracle that they get together for a date — but they do, at a Moroccan restaurant, which Reuben agrees to, even though he can’t handle spicy food and has irritable bowel syndrome. Date literally ends in the bathroom of her sloppy downtown flat, shared with her blind ferret, with the floodgates opened to a wave of poop, fart and miscellaneous fluid jokes. Despite their horrific first date, Polly actually calls up Reuben for second go-round — this time in an Indian restaurant where they happen to run into his parents Vivian and Irving (Lee, Dishy), and where Polly learns about Reuben’s marriage-on-the-rocks. Not all of the above, and not even the fact that Reuben can’t handle Polly’s favorite hobby, salsa dancing, stops them from making love and then regularly seeing each other.

Though obstacles are de rigeur in this kind of comic formula, the ones applied in “Along Came Polly” have the effect of reminding viewers of how unrealistic the pairing of Reuben and Polly is. While it’s plausible that Reuben would want to loosen up a bit to attract Polly (which he does, taking salsa lessons with Polly’s handsome and gay dance buddy Javier, played by Jsu Garcia), there’s never any reason why a gypsy-style gal would have the time of day for such an uptight nerd.

When the ultimate obstacle pops up — Lisa having the gall to return and ask Reuben to have her back — Hamburg’s script clearly has no way out of its own situational cul-de-sac. Although the gags keep constantly rolling along, many wilt through sheer repetition (Sandy’s horrific approach to playing basketball, Van Lew’s crazed behavior) or through never quite realizing their full potential (a too-brief one with Stiller mishandling an art gallery sculpture is like a case of Jerry Lewis interruptus).

Stiller brings only a portion of the nervous and physical energy he essayed for “Parents” or “Zoolander” or, for that matter, the dreadful “Duplex,” helmed by Danny DeVito (who, with his now-divorced Jersey Films partners Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher, produced “Polly”). Aniston does the job of playing a woman who’s used to her own chaotic life, but she never looks like she’s having fun in the role.

Supporting clowns, on the other hand, give the movie what kick it has. Though his character is tangential to almost anything in pic, Hoffman revels in playing a frustrated former teen movie star experiencing hard times. Baldwin and Azaria create full-blown characters out of what are basically glorified cameo spots, while Brown frolics as a bull in a china shop.

Pic looks and sounds as good as any recent Hollywood comedy, distinguished by Seamus McGarvey’s crystalline lensing, Andrew Laws’ well-observed design and a bouncy but not overly emphatic score by Theodore Shapiro.

Along Came Polly

Production

A Universal Pictures release of a Jersey Films production. Produced by Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher. Executive producers, Jane Bartelme, Dan Levine. Directed, written by John Hamburg.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Seamus McGarvey; editors, William Kerr, Nick Moore; music, Theodore Shapiro; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, Andrew Laws; art director, Martin Whist; set designers, Mary Saisselin, Gregory A. Berry; set decorator, Don Diers; costume designer, Cindy Evans; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Geoffrey Patterson; supervising sound editor, Darren King; special effects coordinator, Greg Curtis; special visual effects, Illusion Arts, Inc., Industrial Light and Magic; stunt coordinator, Alex Daniels; choreographers, Joann Fregalette Jansen, Anne Fletcher; associate producer, Anders Bard; assistant director, Daniel Silverberg; second unit director, Alex Daniels; second unit camera, Larry Blanford; casting, Kathleen Chopin. Reviewed at Universal Studios screening room, Universal City, Dec. 23, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Reuben Feffer - Ben Stiller Polly Prince - Jennifer Aniston Sandy Lyle - Philip Seymour Hoffman Lisa Kramer - Debra Messing Claude - Hank Azaria Leland Van Lew - Bryan Brown Stan Indursky - Alec Baldwin Javier - Jsu Garcia Vivian Feffer - Michele Lee Irving Feffer - Bob Dishy

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