This film never stood a chance. It has Jennifer Aniston in it, and it has Ben Stiller. Either of these are efficient indicators that a film is going to be rubbish; taken together they are a lot more reliable than a triple A rating on a bond that this will be terrible.
And yet, somewhere in here was a good film struggling, and failing, to escape. It has Philip Seymour Hoffman, the opposite of a crap indicator; if he’s in it, it’s usually good. Sure, his character is mainly played for the kind of cheap laughs you’d expect from a romcom/frat-buddy film, but underneath there is a kind of tragic story about someone who never recovered from early success, and who has zero insight into himself. When Hoffman and Stiller’s characters play basketball there is a running gag whereby Hoffman makes all the right noises and calls to indicate that he is about to make a winning shot, but always misses. This underlines the lack of insight thing; Hoffman continues to not notice that he is doing this and is very bad at basketball.
Stiller’s character has too much insight into himself – he understands himself as a man scared of life, with a too well developed sense of statistical risk. Of course this is played for laughs, but there is some sense of the underlying tragedy. Bad things really do happen to him (his new wife shags a scuba instructor on his honeymoon, for example) but those aren’t the things for which he has calculated a probability.
And much of the film is about relationships between men – between Stiller and his buddy Hoffman, Stiller and his new girlfriend’s gay best friend, Stiller and his obnoxious boss, Stiller and the Australian CEO who’s risky life he is supposed to be assessing for insurance purposes, Stiller and his silent father…without the cheap laughs this could actually have been a thoughtful and sensitive film. The Australian CEO makes for a bit of a sub-plot that could have been funny and interesting; the way that Stiller’s new wife humiliates him with the scuba instructor and later tries to resume the relationship as if nothing has happened has genuine tragic potential.
Interestingly, for a romcom, it’s the men’s bodies that are really examined; it’s almost a gay film dressed up as a man-woman romcom. There is very little chemistry between Stiller and Aniston, or between Stiller and his soon-to-be-ex-wife. There’s a bit more between Stiller and his mother, naturally. She manages to unfailingly give him the wrong advice, including the suggestion that he should get back together with the cheating wife.
Despite all this, the film is not worth watching, except perhaps on a plane when the alternative is back-to-back Stallone movies. But it’s interesting to muse on how this could have been made differently, so that it actually was worth watching.