Dir: John Hamburg. US. 2003. 90 mins.

John Hamburg, the co-writer of Zoolander and Meet The Parents, delivers a forgettable romantic comedy in Along Came Polly, his second feature as a director after the 1998 caper Safe Men. Although there are belly laughs along the way and a highly appealing cast, the film, which opens in the US on Jan 16, is the kind of mediocre programming item characteristically released by Hollywood's studios in the immediate post-holiday months.

As a small-screen item, however, it is a valuable commodity. The cast is even filled with TV stars - from Friends icon Jennifer Aniston in the title role to Will And Grace's Debra Messing and Knots Landing's Michele Lee in supporting parts. US TV viewers especially will find a level of comfort in Along Came Polly which will ensure its place on pay and free schedules for years to come.

The movie is a starring vehicle for Ben Stiller, Hamburg's muse of sorts, whose prodigious comic talents have led some films to box office glory (Parents, There's Something About Mary) but have failed to save others (last year's Duplex, for example). By no means a guarantee of success, Stiller has two more films due to open in the first half of 2004 alone (Envy, Starsky And Hutch) and could this year step onto the next level of stardom a la Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. Or be the victim of over-exposure.

Stiller plays Reuben Feffer, a successful New York City insurance risk assessor whose aim in life is to avoid risk. He doesn't eat peanuts in a public bar for fear of infection, he doesn't go scuba-diving for fear of accident, he is the model of caution, hygiene and neurosis.

The film opens at his wedding to Jewish princess Lisa (Messing) with whom he lives and whom he has been dating for four years. But on their honeymoon, Reuben's perfect existence is shattered when he catches Lisa having sex with her scuba instructor, a laid-back Frenchman called Claude (Azaria).

Leaving her in disgust, Reuben returns to Manhattan where, at a party, he runs into an old schoolfriend Polly Prince (Aniston), a dithering, happy-go-lucky woman working as a waitress and coming off her eighth consecutive bad relationship.

The two stumble into a romance although there are obstacles along the way - the bad advice of Reuben's best man, delusional former Brat Pack star Sandy Lyle (Hoffman), the return of Lisa much to the approval of Reuben's acerbic mother (Lee), a shipwreck on the boat of Australian mogul Leland Van Lew (Brown) whose life Reuben is assessing for insurance purposes, a demanding, tactile boss (an amusing turn by Alec Baldwin) and a hunky Latino (Garcia) who whisks Polly onto the dance floor for erotic salsa dancing under Reuben's jealous gaze.

Stiller and Aniston are always charming to watch, even if they are both battling one-dimensional characters, while Philip Seymour Hoffman has some of the funniest moments including an unexpected scene when his character complains to Reuben that he has "sharted". What does that mean, asks Reuben. "It's when you fart and shit comes out," explains Sandy.

Indeed, there is a broad strain of Farrelly Brothers-type toilet humour throughout the film, since Reuben suffers from irritable bowel syndrome - a nasty bout of which is brought on by some spicy Moroccan food Polly makes him eat on their first date.

Prod co: Jersey Films
US dist:
Universal Pictures
Int'l dist:
Exec prods:
Jane Bartelme, Dan Levine
Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher
John Hamburg
Seamus McGarvey
Prod des:
Andrew Laws
William Kerr, Nick Moore
Theodore Shapiro
Main cast:
Ben Stiller, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Debra Messing, Alec Baldwin, Hank Azaria, Bryan Brown, Jsu Garcia, Michele Lee, Bob Dishy, Judah Friedlander