Monday, October 09, 2006

Ben Stiller

Trying to cast the lead role of Mel Coplin, an adoptee searching for his biological parents in the wake of his own son's birth in the comedy "Flirting With Disaster" (1996), writer-director David O. Russell knew what he wanted: "a young Dustin Hoffman type, who was kind of urban, kind of smart and ethnic." Ben Stiller, the only son of the venerable husband-and-wife comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, convinced Russell that he could fill the bill.

Increasingly busy before and behind the camera, the curly-haired, quirkily handsome actor-writer-director seemed well poised to become the poster boy for Generation X era comedy--regardless of his stated discomfort with such a designation. With decisive roles played by nepotism, "Saturday Night Live" and MTV, Ben Stiller's swift career trajectory may be somewhat paradigmatic to those for whom the name "Barrymore" evokes "Drew" before "John" or "Lionel".

Stiller utilized his connections to land his first professional acting job in the 1985 Lincoln Center revival of John Guare's dark comedy "The House of Blue Leaves" (his mother was in the original production) after two years of struggling. During its run, he made a short comic film with the play's cast (which ended up airing on "Saturday Night Live"). In 1987, Stiller reprised the role of the son, Ronnie Shaughnessy, a would-be papal assassin, for the play's PBS "American Playhouse" production. In that same very productive year, he also made his film acting debut in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and his TV writing and acting debut in a ten-minute short parody of Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money" for NBC's "Saturday Night Live", in which he offered a devastating caricature of Tom Cruise. He subsequently remained as a featured player and apprentice writer on "SNL" for about a year. (Stiller reportedly left due to creative frustration; the show had limited interest in him directing film clips.)

In 1989, he was given his own half-hour comedy/variety show on MTV entitled "The Ben Stiller Show". A prototype to his more elaborate network effort, the series suffered from music video interruptions and the lack of proper format that would have allowed Stiller to showcase his considerable talents. He also continued working in films, playing supporting roles in such diverse misfires and mediocrities as "Hot Pursuit" (1987, with his father), "Fresh Horses" (1988), "That's Adequate" (1989, with his parents and sister Amy), "Next of Kin" (1989), the Bette Midler weeper "Stella" (1990) and "Highway to Hell" (1992, another family get-together).

A career turning point came when Fox TV signed him for "The Ben Stiller Show" (1992-93), a sketch comedy program with an emphasis on pop culture parodies. An inspired spoof combining "The Munsters" and "Cape Fear" to create "Cape Munster" (which featured Stiller skillfully evoking a hybrid of Robert De Niro and Eddie Munster) was fairly emblematic of the show's irreverent sensibility. Other sketches, featuring skewerings of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Cruise, The Pig-Latin Lover, the amusement park Oliver Stoneland and the evil sock-puppet Skank made the show one of the hippest and funniest on TV, but it was canceled in its first season. Nevertheless, Stiller shared a writing Emmy for his efforts.

Stiller segued to the big screen as a filmmaker making his feature directorial bow with "Reality Bites" (1994), an old-fashioned romance marketed as a "Generation X" comedy. Co-starred with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, he played a neurotic, workaholic music TV exec who occupies one point in the love triangle. The film received some positive notices--especially for Ryder's performance--and Stiller was commended for his skill with actors but his command of narrative storytelling was deemed shaky in some quarters. In any event, the ostensible target audiences largely steered clear.

Though it still remains too early to make any sweeping generalizations about Stiller's screen persona, one may note that, in his choices, he has eschewed conventional romantic leads in favor of problematic eccentrics. Though occasionally (and from certain angles) quite handsome on camera, Stiller has tended to undercut or lampoon his looks. As a sketch performer, he delighted in mocking such presumed studs as Cruise and U2's Bono. A not atypical film role had him playing an obnoxious fitness guru, the baddie, in the inferior Disney comedy "Heavyweights" (1995). This project was notable for reuniting him with Judd Apatow, here a producer-writer and formerly Stiller's collaborator on his Fox series.

Stiller returned to the director's chair for (and played a small role in) "The Cable Guy" (1996). Though budgeted at a formidable $40 million (half of which went to its ascendant star), this Jim Carrey vehicle dared to offer a change-of-pace as the rubber-faced comic played a darker, more menacing variation of his usual persona. Though the film has its share of admirers, "The Cable Guy" proved to be the first flop of Carrey's career as a superstar and stalled Stiller's behind-the-scenes work.

Also in 1996, Stiller enjoyed a solid art-house success with the starring role in "Flirting with Disaster", a rare straightforward romantic lead. He also brought manic energy to his portrayal of a conceptual artist with designs on Sarah Jessica Parker in the unsuccessful romantic comedy "If Lucy Fell". He finished out the year with a (shrewdly?) uncredited turn in fellow "SNL" alum Adam Sandler's feature vehicle "Happy Gilmore", as the smarmy operator of a nursing home.

1998, however, proved to be Stiller's breakout year as a performer. He began with an understated turn as the partner of a reclusive investigator in "Zero Effect", directed by Jake Kasdan. On the heels of that comic portrayal, he played a nebbish haunted by his high school prom date who hires a private detective to track her down in the Farrelly brothers' low-brow surprise blockbuster "There's Something About Mary". Ironically, he was not the studio's first choice for the role and had to fight for it. But he proved to be perfect, willing to go to any lengths for the part. He captured the awkwardness of a gawky teenager (especially when he caught his private parts in his zipper on the night of the prom) and the odd, forlorn adult version of the same character. As an actor, he was willing to undertake potentially embarrassing scenes and mine them for their humor. Applying a similar technique to dramatic material, Stiller essayed a weaselly college professor who embarks on an affair with his best friend's wife in Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors" and capped the year with an all-out tour de force portraying drug-addicted screenwriter Jerry Stahl in "Permanent Midnight".

Stiller was next featured alongside longtime friend Janeane Garofalo in "Mystery Men" (1999), a disappointing comedy centered around a band of off-kilter superheroes. He rebounded the following year with a starring role in the oddly charming sleeper romance "Keeping the Faith", playing a rabbi who finds himself falling for the same childhood friend (Jenna Elfman) his best friend (Edward Norton as a Catholic priest) is also in love with. That same year he had a bona fide box-office hit with "Meet the Parents", starring as a man driven to desperation by the overprotective and overbearing father (Robert De Niro) of his would-be fiancée (Teri Polo). The feel-bad brand of slapstick comedy connected with a large audience, and Stiller proved not only as lovable a loser as he had in "There's Something About Mary", but a worthy screen partner of De Niro. Acting turns in the independents "The Suburbans" and the aptly named "The Independent" rounded out 2000 for the actor.

Stiller returned to the big screen in 2001 as a director and actor, helming and starring in the often riotous though somewhat poorly received "Zoolander", a send-up of the modeling world at once smart and silly. Released shortly after the tragic events of September 11th, the film lost some of its comedic steam but would find life as a cult favorite. He rejoined his "Zoolander" nemesis and frequent co-star Owen Wilson in "The Royal Tenenbaums", a masterful serio-comedy co-written by Wilson and director Wes Anderson and starring Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Stiller and Luke Wilson as a family with great potential that slowly falls apart as they separate. Stiller's portrayal of anxiety-plagued, rage-ridden, red Adidas warm-up suit-garbed widower Chas featured some of the film's most honestly moving moments and garnered the performer critical accolades.

In 2002, after a cameo in Jake Kasdan's comedy "Orange County," Stiller appeared onscreen in "Run Ronnie Run", a feature adaptation of a popular sketch from the off-kilter HBO comedy series "Mr. Show Starring Bob and David". He next co-starred with Drew Barrymore in the flop "The Duplex" (2003), a black comedy about the lengths one will go to in order to rent the perfect apartment in New York City directed by Danny DeVito, but rebounded with mildly amusing and modest hit comedy "Along Came Polly" (2004), in which he played a risk assessment expert who, after his wife cheats on him during their honeymoon, learns to take chances when he falls for a free spirit (Jennifer Aniston).

Stiller had an amusing recurring stint on the 2004 season of the HBO sit-com "Curb Your Enthusiasm" playing himself as bedeviled by Larry David when the two are tapped to co-star in a stage production of Mel Brooks' "The Producers," and then he took on the role of TV cop Dave Starsky in the parody-minded 2004 version of the ABC cop drama "Starsky & Hutch" opposite his frequent collaborator Owen Wilson. While merely mildly amusing, that film was head and shoulders above Stiller's next effort, "Envy" (2004), an epic misfire co-starring Jack Black and directed by Barry Levison. Unfunny and incoherent in the extreme and begging the question why so many talented people agreed to make the film, "Envy" also relied too heavily on the most played-out elements of Stiller's now-familiar comedic persona.

The actor was slightly more amusing as the puffy-haired, mustached White Goodman, the ruthless if undereducated head of the Purple Cobras team, in the sports comedy "Dodge Ball" (2004). By this time, Stiller was clearly established as a central figure in what many characterized as a comedic Rat Pack-style clique of actors who frequently teamed up and/or cameoed in each other's films--the group also included Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, Owen and Luke Wilson and actor Steve Carell.

The actor rebounded successfully at the end of the year with another stint as Gaylord "Greg" Focker in the popular comedy sequel "Meet the Fockers" (2004), which added his character's doting parents (played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand) into the family fold. Stiller then lent his distinctive voice to “Madagascar” (2005), Disney’s animated adventure about four zoo animals who escape and inadvertently find themselves in Africa where the city slickers struggle to survive in the wild. His next project was "A Night at the Museum" (2007), a family comedy about a night security guard in the Museum of Natural History who unwittingly unleashes a curse that brings to life the bugs and animals on display.

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