Romantic comedy as a pop culture genre would not exist without the convention of unlikely, mismatched lovers who start out despising one another before eventually warming up.
We are all happy to suspend disbelief for the ninety or so minutes it usually takes for a movie to work its way through this familiar premise. But filmmakers can never become complacent when handling such a storyline, because we still have to believe that, at some level, these characters are "made for each other".
It is this necessary persuasion that Along Came Polly spectacularly fails to achieve. Writer-director John Hamburg (Safe Men ) sets up two wildly different but almost equally neurotic types, outlines all the reasons why they would never get together, then asks us to accept that they might.
Reuben (Ben Stiller) is a control freak, appropriately enough given that his job is to calculate insurance risks. One risk he did not count on is that his wife, Lisa (Debra Messing), would run off with a French scuba diver (Hank Azaria) on their honeymoon.
So Reuben returns home, alone and confused. His best friend, Sandy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an ageing teen-movie star, encourages him to get back in the game. So Reuben begins doggedly pursuing an old schoolmate, Polly (Jennifer Aniston).
Polly is as free-and-easy as Reuben is rigid. Not only is she into everything he is not – like sexy Latin dancing and the kind of spicy food which triggers his Irritable Bowel Syndrome – she is also saddled with that perennial defect of the modern screen woman: inability to commit.
There are some amusing scenes in this movie, particularly those which tend towards the trash comedy end of the spectrum, with outrageous gags about toilet rituals and bodily hair.
But nothing ever quite clicks together, especially when it comes to that contemporary Hollywood curse of proliferating subplots.
Bryan Brown inhabits one of these subplots as Leland, a devil-may-care Aussie high-flyer whom Reuben must get insured. Leland's story has so little relation to the rest of the movie that, in a scene where Reuben and Polly tag along on a high-sea cruise that Leland skippers, it seems like two completely different films running in parallel lines.
Even more oddly, while the main love story runs its course, Hamburg eventually decides to bundle all the subplots together – which at least gives us an hilarious scene of Sandy finally putting his long-lost acting ability to good use.
© Adrian Martin January 2004