A guy passes on his neighbor's get-rich-quick scheme, only to become resentful when the idea hits the jackpot. It's the premise of Envy, the latest movie from Barry Levinson, which stars Jack Black and Ben Stiller and opens April 2. Entrepreneurs and workaday salesmen have been prominently featured in previous Levinson films (usually the ones set in his hometown of Baltimore), hocking televisions in Diner, appliances in Avalon, aluminum siding in Tin Men, and wigs in An Everlasting Piece. Levinson spoke with Inc. about the business of making movies about business.
Why have salesmen been so central to your movies?
My father had appliance stores and for a short period of time he was involved in the siding racket, which is where I first met the tin men, heard their stories, and learned their scams. I want to do movies that draw on actual experiences of life, and for me it was being around these various salesmen that fascinated me. Growing up, though, I knew I didn't want to be a businessman. My big ambition was not to work in my father's store.
Why are so few movies made about business when it is so central to the American story?
There are few movies about anything--what's out there has very little to do with human beings. That's the overall reason. But it's ironic because God knows there are more salesmen than hired killers. You see salespeople in all the stores and all the malls, and these characters have a million different stories. It's a great deal of what we're all about.
What movie do you feel best captures the American businessman?
I can't think of any movies off hand, but as a play, Death of a Salesman is obviously profound. A man who spends his life working, selling, and has problems with his family--it's incredibly well written and humanistic.
What about Envy will our workaholic readers most enjoy?
It's a funny, left-of-center film about envy in all its permeations and how it strains friendships. It isn't just an inventor and his friend, either. It's about how these events affect their relationships with their wives and kids, as well, after their financial lives are fundamentally altered.
It's been reported that this movie had problems; its release was pushed back, and it was even rumored that Envy might go straight to video.
Yeah, I read that in the New York Post, but what are the odds of a movie starring Jack Black and Ben Stiller going straight to video? What happened was we were supposed to come out last summer. We added a couple more scenes, but in trying to release it later, we kept bumping up against other Ben Stiller movies. First it was Duplex and then Jack Black's School of Rock and then Along Came Polly. We just wanted a slot where two movies weren't on top of each other, and we're still on the heels of Starsky & Hutch. Stiller works too much.