Ben Stiller: A Viewer’s Guide

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An unusually gifted actor/director who works hard to avoid being trapped in the goofball ghetto, Ben Stiller is back on our screens this week with The Watch, a sci-fi buddy movie with shades of The ‘Burbs. It’s the kind of riffy ensemble piece that he can probably do his sleep and perhaps not the best canvas to display his talents. His next directorial project, the intriguingly off-beam The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, should see him back to form. In the meantime, here’s a look at the best (and worst) of his career to date.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Zoolander (2001)

Guilty of a crime no worse than being really, really ridiculously good-looking, Derek Zoolander is beset by complications on all sides: a family that doesn’t understand him (“Mer-man pappy. Merman!”), an evil genius who wants to make a patsy of him, and, worst of all, a bitter rival who’s an ambi-turner. But does Derek rail helplessly about the universe and take refuge in his own bottomless vanity? Well, yes, he does. We still kinda love him, with Ben Stiller’s genius for the absurd (see also: Dodgeball) spilling into a raucously silly send-up of the fashion business that plays like The September Issue on helium. Look out for some first-rate eugoogolising, too.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: Greenberg (2010)

Stiller shows a whole other side to his repertoire in indie auteur Noah Baumbach’s (The Squid And The Whale) pointed study of a laconic New Yorker passing time on the West Coast. Watching Stiller unpeeling layers of the oniony Roger Greenberg is like watching a king of comedy doing his own take on The King Of Comedy: this guy is self-obsessed, solipsistic and writes angry letters to Starbucks, and those are his better qualities. It’s not a part that grants an actor anywhere to hide, but Stiller brings enough rumpled charm to warm audiences to an otherwise unsympathetic character and generates sparks (well, flickers) with Greta Gerwig’s shyly likeable assistant.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

With a cast sporting some of the greatest American thesps of recent decades, Wes Anderson’s tale of urban bohemia must have felt like a bearpit for anyone not on their game. Stiller is, however, and he’s perfectly cast as Chas, the financial whizz in the Tenenbaum clan. He’s an angry, jittery presence in the family, constantly at loggerheads with his pathological pa, Royal (Gene Hackman), and overprotective of his two sons. Not so overprotective, mind you, that he doesn’t name one of Uzi and clothe them in matching Adidas tracksuits that make them look like they’re being educated by Run-DMC.

RECOMMENDED: Reality Bites (1994)

Ben Stiller’s first directorial gig was a much more auspicious affair than his second, the much-maligned (arguably unfairly so) The Cable Guy. Despite initial studio misgivings of this piece, the end result distilled more than enough Gen X zeitgeist to allay fears of a pale Singles impersonator. It’s one of those ‘time and place’ movies but its nicely barbed dialogue (“I’m a non-practising virgin”), coming-of-age crises and impromptu slabs of ‘My Sharona’ make it a pleasure to revisit. Kudos keep to Stiller for canny casting – Ryder and Ethan Hawke are great as the flirty hipsters – and amid all the showier turns, for turning in a controlled performance as the pointy end of the love triangle.

RECOMMENDED: Mystery Men (1999)

There’s another side to Ben Stiller, an inner Hulk than rarely comes out to play. How do we know? Because we’ve seen Mystery Men. In it he plays a man who couldn’t be more enraged if he woke up with his weiner stuck in his zip every single day. He is Mr. Furious, a “ticking timebomb of fury”. Mess with him and he will go Pompeii on your... er, butt. With superpowers like “being mysterious” and waffling things, these superheroes aren’t likely to be recruited into the Avengers any time soon, but Stiller’s rage monster and the likes of the Blue Raja, the Sphinx and the Shoveler match off against the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) with more than enough quips to keep this super-spoof in the air.

FOR THE FAN: Tropic Thunder (2008)

An idea born during Empire Of The Sun when “my friends were getting on these Vietnam movies and going away to fake boot camps”, Stiller’s fearless concept reimagined Hearts Of Darkness as a comedy, blacked up Robert Downey Jr. and generally tore political correctness a new one. The script – penned by Stiller with Etan Cohen and Zoolander pal Justin Theroux – is uneven, veering from a crazed set-up involving Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan and Danny McBride as the battiest film crew since Fitzcarraldo to an action-heavy climax, but Stiller holds the mayhem together as fading action star Tugg Speedman. Watch it for Tom Cruise’s hairy hands, Downey Jr.’s send-up of someone who may or may not be Russell Crowe (but probably is), and for the sight of Stiller going, ill-advisedly, full retard.

ONE TO AVOID: Little Fockers (2010)

While the laughter quotient plummeting like Wile E. Coyote attached to an ACME anvil - and whoever thought it would be funny to put Robert De Niro through an erection gag should be ashamed of themselves - the third helping of Stiller’s Focker franchise raked in more enough ($500m to be exact) to make a Fockers 4 a clear and present danger. On this evidence, it'd be met with the kind of gaiety and merriment that used to welcome an outbreak of the Black Death. We can only imagine it'll be called 'Focking Hell'.