If you showed a newly discovered Stone Age tribe a random assortment of movies, then gave them a camera and told them to go make one of their own, they might come back with something as crudely approximating a real movie as the new Jack Black/Ben Stiller comedy "Envy."
It'd probably be funnier, though.
Directed by Barry Levinson, who hasn't made a good film since 1999's "Liberty Heights" or a great one since 1991's "Bugsy," "Envy" is a weirdly airless disaster, a turkey so insistently DOA that the dialogue serves as its own epitaph. "Where do the turds go?" is a question asked repeatedly throughout the movie. All I can say is that you don't have to look very far.
There have been good Jack Black movies and awful ones, inspired Ben Stiller comedies and misfires. Here the two actors amplify each other's worst tendencies until they achieve the level of feedback. Stiller plays Tim Dingman, a fussbudget family man married to Debbie (Rachel Weisz). His best friend, neighbor, and co-executive at the local sandpaper factory is Nick Vanderpark (Black), a slacker slob married to Natalie (Amy Poehler of "Saturday Night Live") and given to dreaming up pointless inventions like flavored inkpads.
Until one of his ideas clicks: Nick concocts an aerosol spray that makes dog droppings vanish into thin air. He calls it "Vapoorizer," hits the infomercial circuit, and is filthy rich within 18 months. This being Jack Black, Nick goes in-your-face nouveau: palatial McMansion, full-size merry-go-round in the yard, white stallion named Corky in a stable the size of an airplane hangar. Natalie merely buys all the jewelry the Home Shopping Network has to offer and decides to run for Congress.
Meanwhile, Tim -- who passed on the chance to invest $2,000 and go 50-50 with his friend -- watches from across the street, his innards devouring themselves. Somehow this leads to his being fired from his job, accidentally killing Corky in a fit of drunken envy, then covering up the equine corpse in an exponentially growing leaf pile of lies.
The film, coincidentally, is exactly as funny as a dead horse. The scenes have no momentum; they seem paced to some unseen, arrhythmic motor. The lighting is cancerous, the score by Mark Mothersbaugh vamps like a comedian at a funeral, the dialogue falls like overripe fruit on warm concrete. Some of the lines feel desperately improvised, while others might once have been amusing on paper.
Good points? There's a pleasantly cynical bile to the movie's view of middle-class hell: the Dingmans and the Vanderparks have misshapen children and live under brown skies and an endless row of electrical towers. I also liked Nick's butler (Hector Elias), who praises Tim with genteel fulsomeness whenever he opens the door.
And then there's Christopher Walken as "the J-Man," a mangy yet magisterial wino who takes the ruined Tim under his wing and, under the guise of helping him, ruins him further. God love this actor; he knows "Envy" is the multiplex equivalent of an industrial spill, but he's there to pick up his check and damned if he won't give us our money's worth. Walken gives each of his lines a lubricious, happy spin; he has a monologue early on that makes not one lick of sense, and you still soak it up in delight. Stiller keeps giving him dark looks, as if wishing he were in the same movie as this guy.
Black gets relatively little screen time, which is a blessing; so do Weisz and Poehler, which is a shame. And every now and then, you catch a glimpse of the extremely quirky farce "Envy" must have looked like in the minds of its cast, director Levinson, and writer Steve Adams.
Then it vanishes under a blast of Vapoorizer.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.