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Along Came Polly   C

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: John Hamburg
Writer: John Hamburg
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Debra Messing, Alec Baldwin, Hank Azaria, Bryan Brown, Jsu Garcie, Michele Lee.

Review by Rob Vaux

Along Came Polly will not fill you with the urge to set your pubic hair on fire. Neither will it induce terminal facial spasms, cause grown men to weep like children, or prompt oaths of vengeance against whoever developed the technology that makes babies appear to talk. Considering the quality of most January releases, that makes it almost Oscar-caliber. Sadly, it isn't able to do much more, despite two decent stars and a modest sprinkling of funny moments. Romantic comedies of its ilk are ruthlessly formulaic, surviving largely on chemistry and one-liners. Along Came Polly makes a game effort, but can't muster enough of either one to cover for its faults.

Consider Ben Stiller: the closest thing to comfort food this genre can provide. We've all seen his nebbish shtick before, the put-upon nice guy who watches his good intentions go disastrously wrong. He pulls it out again here as risk management analyst Reuben Feffer, whose carefully ordered world comes crashing down when his wife (Debra Messing) porks the local scuba god on their honeymoon. The moment he steps on-screen, you know he's going to go through the ringer, and if you're careful, you can time each pratfall down to the millisecond. The upside is that he's good at it; the downside is that there's absolutely nothing to separate it from any of his better takes on the concept. While he never puts you off, you eventually start to wonder when something different will appear. Nothing does.

His costar Jennifer Aniston has no such worries. Her Polly Prince is an open delight -- a quirky, scatterbrained live-for-the-moment type who transcends her stock qualities through the actress's energetic charm. She stumbles into Reuben's life as he's trying to pick up the pieces and -- surprise -- delivers an opposites-attract jolt to help him loosen up. Director John Hamburg nicely contrasts her comedic material with Stiller's, letting us enjoy their better moments without having the gags shoveled at us in a rush.

The difficulty (and Along Came Polly's key failure) comes not in their respective routines, but in the effort to bring them together. As long as it plays up one side or the other -- focusing on Stiller's discomfort or Aniston's kookiness -- things are fine. But at no point do they ever feel like a genuine couple. Their chemistry is tepid at best, and though we're told that they're slowly falling for each other, the evidence of any attraction is terribly scant. They act the way the screenplay tells them to act, and as Along Came Polly continues, the wheels of the machine override any plausible romantic connection. You find yourself pondering the peripherals (how the hell did Hank Azaria get so ripped?!) instead of caring about the two characters at the heart of it all.

Hamburg responds largely by adhering to the usual arc -- meet cute, bond fast, encounter crisis, triumph through love. Warm fuzzies for all my men, and hold on for the credits in case there's a throwaway gag at the end (there isn't). His touch for comic timing never completely falters, but also relies too heavily on timid gross-out gags that fail to breach the PG-13 wall. Coherence fades rapidly once we get away from the central love story, falling back on a grab bag of high-profile performers (Alec Baldwin, Bryan Brown, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who amuse, to be sure, but lack any sort of rudder. Along Came Polly aids its cause with its inherent harmlessness, but the end result is too off-the-shelf to appeal to any but the most ardent romantic-comedy lovers. If it's cold outside and the theater is heated, you could probably find worse things to look at while avoiding hypothermia. But real romance, real laughs, a real good time at the movies? They're just a little bit beyond Along Came Polly's grasp.

Review published 01.16.2004.

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