A strange little fable about coveting your neighbor's possessions, "Envy" can't decide whether to be an eccentric black comedy or a middle-of-the-road diversion. As in his "Toys" (which was more of a mess than this one), director Barry Levinson's desire to provoke extreme laughs isn't matched by a strategy of how to get to the edge -- especially when the edge is some distance from his trusty Baltimore storytelling roots.

A strange little fable about coveting your neighbor’s possessions, “Envy” can’t decide whether to be an eccentric black comedy or a middle-of-the-road diversion. As in his “Toys” (which was more of a mess than this one), director Barry Levinson’s desire to provoke extreme laughs isn’t matched by a strategy of how to get to the edge — especially when the edge is some distance from his trusty Baltimore storytelling roots. Auds coming to see co-stars Ben Stiller and Jack Black won’t quite know what to think of this one either, though pic, which has been on the shelf for a year, may gain admirers in ancillary after a B.O. fade.

Steve Adams’ screenplay provides a blueprint for stretching this high-concept comedy, but it stumbles and doesn’t know where to go in the third act. Although making a studio movie, the filmmakers seem to be trying to let it all hang out like in a wacko indie fling — this seems especially true when Christopher Walken moseys on screen in a role that seems a send-up of his craziest turns.

Black plays working-stiff character Nick Vanderpark, who is criticized by his supers at a sandpaper plant for lacking focus — the same problem plaguing the movie itself. Nick’s a dreamer, says his best friend, neighbor, fellow car-pooler and co-worker Tim Dingman (Stiller), who loyally accepts Nick’s constant musings on product inventions.

A wonderful deadpan mood runs through the early minutes, in which Levinson applies dry wit to Tim’s and Nick’s world. That world is composed of low-key emotions, ’50s-style Valley tract homes, aging economy cars, off-the-rack suits and offices with fake wood paneling (Victor Kempster did the aces sets, and Gloria Gresham had fun with the costumes). But when Nick actually comes up with a real invention — a spray that dissolves animal feces called “The Vapoorizer” (accent on the “poo”) — it sends the pair, and the movie, on a different, unsure course.

Eighteen months later, Tim regrets his decision not to invest in Nick’s magic spray. Added to that, his wife Debbie (Rachel Weisz) tells him he made the flub of his life as, across the street, the now ridiculously rich Nick and wife Natalie (Amy Poehler) have built their mega-dream house, capped with a lifestyle of non-stop leisure and luxury.

After Tim spews his pent-up anger at his boss and gets fired, a sojourn in a bar leads to a fateful meeting with a rootless post-hippie dude filled with endless chatter: J-Man (Walken), who takes to Tim like gummy glue. This is Walken unleashed, riffing and pouring on the mannerisms and off-kilter tics like a jazzman jamming at 3 a.m., but it also plays as extremely mannered and less amusing with each succeeding scene.

The same problem applies to the movie as a whole, as the unconvincing story sends the characters spinning off into more and more unlikely places (including, of all destinations, Rome). Stiller’s put-upon everyman shtick here suffers from its over-familiarity, having been seen in too many movies; Black, by contrast, seems fresh as he takes an unexpectedly laid-back angle to a fellow blissfully unaware of the pain he’s causing his friend. Weisz and Poehler get fewer choice moments than they deserve.

Lenser Tim Maurice-Jones and Levinson play with the absurd clash of Nick’s tasteless estate against a Los Angeles cityscape straight out of a photo by John Humble. Most eccentric of all is composer Mark Mothersbaugh’s recurring title song (warbled a la Leon Redbone by Dan Navarro) that’s clever at first but becomes an annoying Greek chorus device.

Envy

Production

A DreamWorks release of a DreamWorks Pictures and Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Castle Rock Entertainment of a Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures production. Produced by Barry Levinson, Paula Weinstein. Executive producer, Mary McLaglen. Co-producer, Josh McLaglen. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay, Steve Adams.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Tim Maurice Jones; editors, Stu Linder, Blair Daily; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; music supervisor, Allan Mason; production designer, Victor Kempster; art director, Seth Reed; set designers, Scott Herbertson, Domenic H. Silvestri , Richard Reynolds; set decorator, Ronald R. Reiss; costume designer, Gloria Gresham; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Steve Cantamessa; sound designer, Chris Scarabosio; supervising sound editors, Michael Silvers, Larry Schalit; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Lingenfelser; special effects coordinator, Gary D'Amico; visual effects, Cinesite; animal effects, Bischoff's Taxidermy and Animal EFX; stunt coordinator, Tim Davison; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; casting, Ellen Lewis. Reviewed at Mann Plaza 2, Los Angeles, April 27, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

Cast

Tim Dingman - Ben Stiller Nick Vanderpark - Jack Black Debbie Dingman - Rachel Weisz Natalie Vanderpark - Amy Poehler J-Man - Christopher Walken (English, Italian dialogue)

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