That Moment In ‘Along Came Polly’ When Polly and Reuben Fight at Sea
Along Came Polly is a 2004 comedy about a buttoned up newlywed who finds his too organized life falling into chaos when he falls in love with an old classmate.
As the Jennifer Aniston fame train was rolling along with its biggest head of steam at the turn of the century, she was putting time in with her hugely popular show Friends and starring in a string of romcom-ish movies that capitalized on her quirky girl-next-door charms. The whole world was captivated and it ravenously wanted more. She tried to break from expectations here and there – her great work in The Good Girl still stands as some of the best in her career – but it wasn’t what fans wanted, and so she found herself a passenger of sorts on her own train, making stops at all the usual places.
So it was with 2004’s Along Came Polly, a goofy romance that kind of floundered in the ether between a Farrelly Brother‘s raucous comedy and something from Nora Ephron. That just means it didn’t quite work. Giving it a second chance, I liked it better the second time and was more taken by the simmering drama that was always trying to get to the top, and in all honesty, was rather taken by Aniston, who is clearly swaddled by the limitations of the script and the demands of the genre. Let’s take a look.
The story follows a guy who knows a thing or two about risk assessment. He’s an insurance expert, the rigidly-structured Reuben Feffer (Ben Stiller), and things don’t start well for him. He catches his wife Lisa (Debra Messing) cheating … on their honeymoon … and so heads home to gather his senses, not at all expecting to run into the lovely Polly Prince (Jennifer Aniston), a school classmate who lives for the moment and challenges Reuben to take a few more gambles in life.
So far so familiar, and indeed, this innocuous rom-com is strictly by the numbers. Written and directed by John Hamburg, who also wrote the screenplays to Meet the Parents franchise, the movie is at least raised by some solid and often funny performances that earn some genuine laughs, including from Stiller who, at this stage in his career, found a string of comedies that fit his manic, awkward-man style perfectly. Philip Seymour Hoffman hands down steals every scene he is in and shows off a rather surprising capacity for comedy that is so good one wonders if the film might have been better if it was about him instead. Probably not.
Either way, as Reuben grows closer to Polly, she constantly pushes him to try more and more adventurous things, which predictably ends in disaster, even if it is loosening him up a bit. From ethnic restaurants to salsa dancing, Reuben is broadening his horizons but it’s definitely taking its toll. This is not his lifestyle and the carefree attitude is slowly unraveling him. When his cheating wife comes back looking for a second chance, well, you can probably guess what he does – forcing himself to decide between the free-spirited Polly or the stable Lisa.
And that brings us to a great moment, one that I think serves as the best argument for why Along Came Polly might have worked better if it took itself seriously and allowed the cast to tackle the darker side of it all rather than try to play into the trappings of the genre to satisfy Aniston fans. What you need to know about Reuben is his aversion to great risk. That’s his job, assessing such and advising clients against it. Problem is, he’s taken that approach in his relationships and is using a computer program to actually compare outcomes with the two women in his life.
This gets discovered while Reuben and Polly are on the private yacht of one Leland Van Lew (Bryan Brown), a potential client of Reuben’s who has invited them for a little cruise. While Reuben has weighed the odds and is ready to ask Polly to move in with him, she finds the computer program, and let’s just say, it doesn’t exactly hit the happy buttons he might have hoped for. She questions him on it and he confesses that he’s been thinking about their future and sees them together. This shocks her, and she straight up tells him that, no, this is a fling, to which he attempts to justify his trajectory, that this is what couples do. They argue, with him criticising her ‘non-plan-plan’ to life where she seems to revel in non-commitment, which only digs him in deeper. She then explains that her life is filled with riches, from good to bad and even confesses something a little traumatic from her past that resets what Reuben ever thought of her.
Avoiding spoilers, I’ll leave it right there, but what’s really good about this scene is the overt metaphorical approach Hamburg takes to it all, as the seas become swept up into a nasty storm that rocks the boat the entire time the two are at each other. Yes, it cliché but it works well and actually gives the moment a bit of motion that keeps tumbling the actors about, and here’s where all that becomes important. As they talk, they are forced off their feet, sometimes drawing them closer and sometimes pushing them apart. The physicality of the scene punctuates these troubled feelings with great effect, leaving the actors a little breathless and always unstable. I really appreciate the nuance of this, especially since the moment is decidedly bombastic. By the time the scene ends, they are holding onto railings and grasping for footing, mirroring their places in the fight as well, as clearly there are things between them that work and yet the larger chasm separating them is threatening to consume them.
We are watching a comedy, and that’s never really abandoned, as the scene shifts a few times during the fight to Van Lew recklessly battling the open waters with glee, yet there’s no escaping the power of it as well. It’s the movie’s most affecting conflict and is staged with such respectful attention to the characters that it could fit just as well in an award-winning drama. It’s so good that it almost undermines everything that follows as it tries to reestablish its comedic tone. Still, overall, I liked Along Came Polly, and while it never challenges the way this scene really promises it should, it’s a fun and often charming little romcom, with some good work from its cast. A fight aboard a yacht is the highlight where two lovers face uncertain truths as the world around them shakes them to their core. It’s a great cinematic moment.