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Along Came Polly

(2004) ** Pg-13
90 min. Universal. Director: John Hamburg. Cast: Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Debra Messing, Alec Baldwin.

Along Came Polly is a typical modern comedy of catastrophe, seasoned with scatological humor (the BBC's The Office has recently reminded us that poo is not the height of embarrassment, but the movies haven't caught up yet). Writer-director John Hamburg--one of the scribes behind Zoolander and Meet the Parents--tailors his work once again to Ben Stiller, who still shows prodigious skill in his signature role of a klutzy, neurotic urban Everyman trying to keep it together. The results this time out are too clumsy to recommend; at best, Along Came Polly makes a fair time-waster. Stiller plays Reuben Feffer, whose marriage to his apparently perfect girlfriend Lisa (Debra Messing) meets with disaster on their St. Bart's honeymoon: left briefly alone, Lisa slaps flippers with Hank Azaria's French scuba instructor, leaving a shell-shocked Reuben to turn tail to New York. There, he commiserates with slovenly buddy Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and reports to the boss-man of his insurance agency, played amusingly by an adenoidal Alec Baldwin.

As a risk assessment analyst, Feffer is the poster boy for anal retentive caution and force of habit. He sees a "hot zone" in the nut bowl of his local bar and, even after throwing his wife out, daily regulates the throw pillows which cover more than half of his bed. He also has irritable bowel syndrome, which fuels the requisite farcical toilet interlude. Stiller works to the hilt his hopelessly squirmy efforts to appear relaxed and his blank-eyed disbelief at his own bad luck. Though he's prone to unseemly indulgences (like a slo-mo face-plant into the sweaty, hairy chest of a basketball opponent), Stiller remains the godfather of schadenfreude date flicks.

As the Polly who comes along, Jennifer Aniston shows her charisma and sitcom-bred ability to turn even weak punchlines to her advantage. Unfortunately, Hamburg only lightly sketches her character as the "Free Spirit"TM Reuben needs to unlock the happy-go-lucky guy inside the worrywart (at one point, Polly even tells Reuben, "I'm liberating you!"); only in a moment of climactic conflict does Hamburg detonate a couple of sentences of character development meant to explain Polly's own relationship dysfunctions.

Along Came Polly hits and misses its way through its ninety minutes. Hoffman's performance as a faded teen star, for example, is most notable as a seemingly willful effort to co-opt Jack Black's propulsive schtick. This works to a point: Hoffman takes a killer spill on his entrance and later deadpans the memorably dirty euphemism "I just sharted." Unfortunately, his character's comedic obstacles--a community theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar and a tag-along E! True Hollywood Story crew--prove to be detours leading to a dead end. Ultimately, Hamburg seems more interested in pee and poo jokes than honest character development; there's more spontaneity, humor, and pathos in the blunderings of Polly's blind pet ferret than in any of the human characters.

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