Is Ben Stiller a Good Risk Manager in "Along Came Polly"?

Bohemian Polly (Jennifer Anniston) loosens suited Reuben's (Ben Stiller) tie as they walk through a park. From Along Came Polly.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Along Came Polly,” there’s no doubt you remember Ben Stiller’s character Reuben Feffer, the neurotic but successful risk manager at a life insurance company (technically he’s a senior risk assessment analyst), who lives a predictable life and is terrified of taking risks. In real life, would that risk aversion actually make him good at his job?

Spoiler Alert

Before analyzing that, though, here’s a quick recap of what happens (spoiler alert, we guess, for this 12-year-old movie): During Reuben’s honeymoon, he catches his new wife Lisa (Debra Messing) flippers up with her scuba instructor (Hank Azaria). Heartbroken, he flies home and soon runs into his old middle-school classmate Polly (Jennifer Aniston).

Polly is carefree and lives to take risks, from eating super-spicy Moroccan food with her hands to basing her career as an author on writing a children’s book about kids getting maimed. She and Reuben start dating, and things go relatively well—until Reuben’s wife returns home.

Reuben spends the rest of the movie using his risk management chops to decide between his wife and Polly. After failed attempts at salsa dancing and an embarrassing trip to the bathroom after all that Moroccan food, he finally learns the value of taking risks and decides on Polly (surprise, surprise). To prove his love for her and his newfound love of risk, he even eats roasted nuts off the streets of New York City.

To say Rueben is risk averse at the start of the movie is a serious understatement. He’s the kind of guy who avoids subways grates because he knows there’s a one-in-46,000 chance of falling through. He’s the kind of guy who replaces candles with mini lamps at his wedding to cut down on fire hazards.

But does that extreme fear of risk make him a good risk manager?

Risk and Return Management

“Being a risk manager, actuary or any insurance professional is not just about finding risk,” said Rick Gorvett, staff actuary at the Casualty Actuarial Society, a MyPath partner organization. “In general, we’re charged with identifying, quantifying and managing risks. So it’s not just the avoidance of risk, it’s the managing of it and taking advantage of specific risks in a responsible way.”

For this exact reason, Gorvett says lots of folks in the industry don’t call it “risk management” anymore, they call it “risk and return management.” Good risk managers are constantly digging deeper into the tradeoff between risk and return.

“Anyone who’s into gambling knows any risk has three possibilities. You can lose, break even or win. That’s really the way to manage and handle risks in a business framework,” said Gorvett.

What about when it comes to love?

Reuben's Riskmaster

At one point in the movie, Reuben plugs the specific attributes of each woman into the Riskmaster, a high-tech computer program that inputs risks and rewards and spits out a “total risk rating” down to the hundredth decimal. It’s certainly a tempting idea. People have even posted online asking where they can buy their own Riskmaster. In the movie, it works as a kind of overly complicated pro-and-con list.

Gorvett notes the Riskmaster’s process isn’t significantly different from what a dating site does—you input and rank different qualities, and the site uses an algorithm to determine effective matches. The Riskmaster is kind of like an early version of OKCupid.

Well, Rueben turns to the Riskmaster in a moment of crisis, ready to accept whatever response the machine comes up with rather than make the choice himself. That’s a terrible way to pick a soul mate, and it’s an even worse cop out for professional risk managers.

“No risk manager in their right mind would say, ‘whatever comes out of that machine is what we’re doing,’” Gorvett said. “In fact, that output is maybe 50 percent of the job. You still have to interpret it and make the right operational decision.”

Thanks to huge advances in access to data and processing power, the tools risk managers have at their disposal today far surpass Reuben’s Riskmaster. Yet all that analytical power is still really trying to get at one pretty fundamental ratio: how likely an event is to occur and the impact that event will have on the organization.

Some risks could have a huge impact but are so unlikely that it’s probably not worth spending much effort managing them. Other risks are very likely, but will have a small impact. That’s why we have deductibles on insurance policies. To get at this info, risk managers use a combination of quantitative and qualitative factors.

“There are definitely Riskmaster-like programs out there, and you’ll continue to see that develop more with artificial intelligence,” Gorvett said. “But I think what’s struck people in the last decade or so is how much you need that qualitative element as well.”

So, back to the original question. Was Rueben Feffer a good risk manager?

“I’ll take the less risky route and say it’s a combination,” Gorvett said.“Calculating risks is fine, but it depends what he does with the output. If he just blindly follows whatever the calculation spits out, then that’s bad. But eventually he listens to his heart a little bit. That’s something a good risk manager should do; we’d just never put it like that. We’d call it intuition or something sophisticated like quantitative versus qualitative effect.”

Bottom line, the Reuben at the beginning of the movie wasn’t a great risk manager, but by the end he transforms into a pretty good one.

For the nonrisk manager, think of it this way: It’s OK for Reuben to know the chances of falling into a subway grate, but that doesn’t mean he has to avoid them for the rest of his life. He can even use the Riskmaster to weigh the pros and cons of two love interests, so long as he’s willing to take whatever calculated risks are necessary to end up with the right girl in the end.

As Gorvett points out, “Jennifer Aniston will do that to you.”

Photo credit: NBCUniversal