Is it wrong that I kinda love Ben Stiller?
I'm not even that excited for Zoolander 2 and I can count the number of his films that I truly love on only a single hand. Yet I find him so watchable and his decisions so fascinating, even when they lead him (and therefore, me) to a rotten movie. But my affection runs deep. For an actor who has had so many misfires and appeared in so many films I flat-out don't like, I never find myself blaming him or even disliking him. There's more going on with this guy than meets the eye.
Since I've put more thought into this than I'd like to admit, I put together a quick five-step guide on learning to like and appreciate the presence of Mr. Stiller. It won't change you mind about Night at the Museum, but maybe it will make you think twice about him.
The Young Upstart
Stiller has been starring in major movies for so long that it's often hard to remember that he once operated on the fringe as the kind of cult comic talent that quietly worms his way into culture.
The short-lived Ben Stiller Show aired for a single season on MTV from 1989 through 1990 and it's often so very different from his later films that you can't help but wonder where this version of him has gone these days. With a writer's room that included the likes of Judd Apatow, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Dino Stamatopoulos, this short-lived sketch series represented a collection of modern comedy's greatest minds cutting their teeth years before they would move onto their own shows and movies.
The Ben Stiller Show represents Stiller at his edgiest and most fearless (he's young and brash enough to go after his fair share of targets), but it also represents good taste. Throughout his career, in projects both good and bad, Stiller would continue to recruit genuinely talented people to fill out his ranks.
Stiller has a reliable deadpan that has led to him getting cast in so many movies where he gets to react to something amazing. Sometimes, that something is Robert De Niro asking him about milking cats or a giant T-Rex skeleton come to life. However, too many of his major performances ignore what we already learned from The Ben Stiller Show -- he is so damn good at disappearing into a character when he wants to.
He hasn't had the chance to showcase an impressive number of memorable oddballs like some of his contemporaries (think Will Ferrell) and that's a shame. His Derek Zoolander is a memorable, one-of-a-kind buffoon. Tropic Thunder's Tugg Speedman is a completely different shade of amusing idiot. And on a show filled with huge guest starts creating bizarre, unforgettable characters, his absurd magician is one of Arrested Development's many highlights. When asked to step away from the straightforward everyman, Stiller consistently delivers.
Although he may not have a great many directorial credits to his name, Stiller has proven time and time again to be a consistently strong filmmaker. The projects that see him stepping behind the camera have more panache, more style, than your typical comedy.
Reality Bites has developed a strong following since its underwhelming initial run, but it is 1996's The Cable Guy that establishes him as a truly deranged and interesting filmmaker, the kind of guy unafraid to ask huge movie stars like Jim Carrey to risk their reputations on truly batty screenplays.
However, the new millennium saw him take a few more steps forward as a director. Tropic Thunder is a parody of glossy Hollywood bombast that is actually made with proper, glossy Hollywood bombast -- it looks like a real movie, avoiding the simplistic framing and simplistic rhythms of too many comedies. And while The Secret Life of Walter Mitty isn't wholly successful, it finds Stiller pushing his style in new directions, creating movie that truly is lovely to look at.
Like so many other comedic performers, Stiller has proven himself to be a fine dramatic actor...when he's actually given the chance to work in the right project. It's a shame that he never became one of Wes Anderson's regulars after his subdued and lovely work in The Royal Tenenbaums, where his portrayal of a traumatized widower provides a major piece of the film's soul.
The clip below, where he finally breaks down to his long-absent father, is a highlight in a film with many. However, he has managed to work with director Noah Baumbach on two occasions, utilizing his trademark deadpan in more nuanced comedies like Greenberg and While We're Young.
The Tragic Clown
There's a deep tragedy to Stiller's career that often feels impossible to shake. How can a guy this funny, with such good taste in other actors and writers, attach himself to such forgettable garbage? The Watch, Tower Heist, and the Night at the Museum movies feel so desperate, as if these were the only jobs coming his way. And who knows -- maybe they are.
However, junk like Meet the Fockers makes Stiller's highlights shine all the brighter and transform him into a tragic clown of sorts. Here is a guy who is so easy to watch, so obviously bursting with creative energy, who is forced to bide his time in nonsense so he can occasionally bring us something special. Somehow, that only makes him more interesting.