[3 October 2007]
Just prior to last year’s opening of the Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum,” the film’s screenwriters, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, were asked if they wrote the movie with Stiller in mind.
“We write every script with Ben Stiller in mind,” Lennon said. “If you work in Hollywood these days, you might as well.”
To call Stiller a box-office phenomenon is to call Warren Buffett comfortable. Between his starring roles, supporting roles and innumerable cameos, Stiller has become a candidate for the Whoopi Goldberg Chair in Applied Ubiquitousness, as well as the Michael Caine Medal for Indiscriminant Role Choice.
Since he began his performing career in the mid-70s, the 41-year-old comic has appeared in 80-some-odd movies and TV episodes. Thirty of his films have appeared since the late `80s; of those, Stiller has also directed three and produced four. If producer-director Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) ever starts casting Stiller in his movies, the Hollywood comedy industry will be reduced to a one-party system.
The perceived universality of what might be called Stillerness is evidenced most recently by his casting in the Farrelly brothers’ “The Heartbreak Kid,” which opens Friday and is a remake of the 1972 Charles Grodin-Cybill Shepherd comedy. It is, in some ways, a perfect vehicle for Stiller. In the original, Grodin plays a honeymooning New Yorker who falls for Shepherd, leaves his new wife, trails Shepherd to Minnesota and woos her under the gimlet eye of her father, Eddie Albert.
What made “The Heartbreak Kid” really unusual for its time - and why it’s been more or less off the radar for so long - was how uncomfortable its hero made audiences feel. Grodin, usually likeable to an extreme, here plays an extremely unsympathetic character. And as he tries to buffalo a lot of people who are clearly onto him, the cringe factor goes off the charts.
But we are in the golden age of cringe comedy, are we not? And who better than Stiller to serve as its poster boy? He is the most successful of a roster of comedians who have defined Hollywood comedy as a series of embarrassments and defined the male comedic hero by way of a kind of freakishness.
In a rather notorious critique leveled on the pages of the New Yorker in 2005 (one that elicited an acidic, if ineffectual response from Stiller’s pal Owen Wilson), critic David Denby assessed the actor’s charms:
“His face,” Denby wrote, “seems constructed by someone playing with the separate eyes, noses and mouths of a children’s mix-and-match book ... Stiller knows how to use his big head for broad comic effect: If he pulls down his chin and stares, he looks like a mildly paranoid gibbon, and by furrowing his brow and twisting his mouth he can do a dozen variations on dopey suspiciousness, manic glee or pawing-the-dirt sexual rage. In roles where he drops the anxious-Jewish-male persona, these contortions tend to take over.”
Stiller is half-Jewish - his parents are comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara - but fully anxious. And with good reason: As Garant described “Night at the Museum’s” plot line, “It’s still Ben Stiller doing his thing. It’s Ben Stiller being horribly put upon; it’s Ben Stiller in horrible situation after horrible situation.”
Where “The Heartbreak Kid” differs is in the position of Stiller’s character: He’s the perpetrator, rather than the victim. And it may be a test of Stiller’s box-office charisma to have him play something other than the besieged and beset.
Why has victimization made Stiller the surest bet in Hollywood? It may be less about the singer than the song: He would have been a character actor in another era. But he happened to come along at a time when character actor roles have moved to the center ring.
Consider the Apatow films; consider most Adam Sandler roles; consider Will Ferrell’s hilariously stoopid protagonists. None is a romantic lead in the traditional sense, and most comedies have always been romances, too. That the nerd now gets the girl explains in part the reason for Stiller’s popularity - the Lou Costellos have always outnumbered the Cary Grants. And Stiller is in the right place at the right moment in screen comedy.
Jerry Lewis, at one time the sine qua non of desperation humor (“Hey, ladieeeeee!!!!”) has spawned an entire generation of needy comedians - men who wield the bold confidence of an 11-year-old girl in braces; whom we sense will go to any length for a laugh. They have to: for the most part, they’re not funny. There’s nothing naturally amusing about Stiller, who has a dark, glowering look and all the welcoming warmth of a closed fist. But audiences have shown a willingness to attend the kind of movies that can accommodate him. This is because, as at McDonald’s, they know what they’re going to get.
Stiller can be effective, but it’s this critic’s view that he’s much better in his cameo roles than in trying to carry a movie. One of the funniest scenes in his oeuvre has him waiting to board a plane in “Meet the Parents,” and being told, although he’s the only one in the waiting area, to wait till his row is called.
The moment is a glance back at the Ben Stiller who showed so much edgy promise in “Flirting With Disaster” and “Reality Bites,” when he was more of an actor and less of a product. It’s a prime situation for Stiller the Everyman: frustrated by uncontrollable forces in a bewildering universe that seems out to get him; exercising supreme control when he really wants to run amok; and blaming himself in the end for everything that goes awry.
In this sense, Stiller is never alone, either in our minds or in our theaters. It’s the unfortunate audiences, though, that include Stiller among forces in the universe they can’t control.