Gross-out comedies have taken a dive lately. The Farrelly brothers have been batting zero, the toilet jokes in “The Cat in the Hat” deeply offended Dr. Seuss fans, and now these bad-taste marathons are turning up as January throwaways -– never a good sign for any genre.
Last week’s “My Baby’s Daddy” had so many diaper gags that its distributor decided to cancel press screenings. This week’s “Along Came Polly” was at least deemed worthy of advance showings, probably because of its first-rate cast, which works mightily to keep it from becoming a complete waste of 90 minutes.
The hardest worker is Ben Stiller, playing Reuben Feffer, a New York insurance analyst who makes a fetish of not taking risks in his life. When his new bride, Lisa (Debra Messing), dumps him during their honeymoon for a nudest scuba instructor (Hank Azaria), Reuben feels so humiliated that he begins to take some chances.
Chief among them is a fling with a flaky childhood chum, Polly (Jennifer Aniston), who works as a waitress at parties and specializes in pouring red wine into glasses half-filled with white. (This apparently charms the patrons and her boss because she keeps doing it and she never gets fired.)
She also spoils her half-blind pet ferret and indulges in spicy foods and salsa dancing -- which Reuben takes up to impress her. At the same time, Reuben becomes pals with a cheerfully macho wild man (Bryan Brown) who parachutes from skyscrapers and takes the couple on an exhilarating/disastrous yachting expedition.
Also pushing the envelope is Reuben’s best friend Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a has-been actor who had his 15 minutes of fame in an ancient brat-pack movie and is now trying to play both Jesus and Judas in a hopeless stage revival of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Michele Lee and Bob Dishy turn up as Reuben’s grotesque parents, while Alec Baldwin plays his equally caricatured boss.
The movie marks a reunion for Stiller and screenwriter John Hamburg, who co-wrote Stiller’s “Meet the Parents” and “Zoolander.” But Hamburg is also the director of “Along Came Polly,” and that’s a problem. He’s directed only one other movie, 1998’s poorly paced “Safe Men,” which also had a terrific cast and suffered from a similar lack of comic rhythm.
His new movie attempts to achieve a romantic, sophisticated “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” quality, especially near the end (when the ferret replaces Holly Golightly’s cat); there’s an especially lovely moment that makes use of Beck’s melancholy song, “Lost Cause.” But the running gags about flatulence and diarrhea and lack of toilet paper keep popping up in the most inappropriate places.
The result is a disappointment, yet it’s not something the actors will want to remove from their resumes. Stiller has an almost masochistic gift for playing humiliated heroes; he’s at his funniest when his characters hit bottom. Aniston continues to suggest that she’s the one member of the “Friends” tribe who has a big-screen future, while Hoffman and Brown waltz off with every scene they’re in.
John Hartl is MSNBC.com's film critic.