If you look at the two big peaks of Ben Stiller’s early ’90s career — Fox’s “The Ben Stiller Show” and 1994’s “Reality Bites,” the two projects over which he exercised the most control up to that point — and didn’t know any better, you might not have expected him to stick around.
Back then, it seemed clear that Stiller wasn’t a comedian, actor or director so much as a guy peculiarly obsessed with the texture of late twentysomething life (a topic of considerable self-obsession at the time), especially its pop cultural aspects. His Bono impersonation was dead-on, and “Reality Bites” has become a fairly unwatchable touchstone, an amusing anthology of current concerns (AIDS! Coming out of the closet! Slackers!).
Stiller eventually left this financially unrewarding path and, starting with “There’s Something About Mary,” began to systematically peel away the rough edges from his persona. At least in “Meet The Parents” he was worried about being Jewish, and rightfully so whenever De Niro started to crack wise; of late, his paranoia and flailing precede any motivation. It’s schtick as calcified as any Robin Williams film.
It’s funny, then, to see Stiller respectfully profiled and analyzed by Dennis Lim in the New York Times, who notes that he specializes in “characters defined by their simmering resentments and festering neuroses.” Well, sure. Williams plays (mostly) characters defined by motor-mouthed volubility and wise-cracking impersonations: what of it? For the most part, Stiller presents anxiety as a spectacle for other people to laugh at, which is unobjectionable but not particularly brave. It’s hardly a lot to talk about.
On the other hand, as a director Stiller favors casting himself in aggressively self-regarding and preening capacities (both in “Zoolander” and “Tropic Thunder”). As a satirist, he isn’t so much pointed as, often, angry. He’s spoofing other people he obviously isn’t — model, action star — and it’s that split between his self-deprecation and his own tendency to use himself as a stick to beat others with that forms maybe the sole interesting tension of Stiller’s recent career.
Towards the end of the profile, Stiller says pop-culture parody — his former starting point — is now maybe too fragmentary for him to keep up with. Instead, the photo at the top of the profile has Stiller (now 44) looking grey-haired and kind of Jeff Bridges-y, while the article talks up how sharp and aggressive his character in “Greenberg” is. But if you transplant the anger animating and uneasy that animates Stiller’s own work, it makes sense: he’s just going to express that in slightly more straightforward ways, the same way all aging comedians eventually feel the oft-misplaced urge to “get serious.” Self-loathing and aggressive bad treatment of others, after all, are almost invariably two sides of the same coin.
[Photos: “Reality Bites,” Universal, 1994; “Zoolander,” Paramount, 2001]