Ben Stiller: From Slapstick to Satire

Slide 1: Introduction

In Greenberg, Ben Stiller plays a character that may surprise people. While the film is a comedy, Stiller is neither zany, nor silly, nor slapstick, nor satirical. He is a lost soul who has moved to Los Angeles to find himself in a comedy of very human proportions. As an introduction to his performance, we wanted to review the unique ways that Stiller has used his different persona to create original comic characters.

Slide 2: Reality Bites (1994)

While Stiller had already established himself as comic writer and performer in television and film, he stepped into the role of feature film director with Reality Bites. Brought in by producer Michael Shamberg, Stiller worked closely with screenwriter Helen Childress to craft a comedy that captured the confusion and concerns of Gen-X adults. Grunge music, MTV, HIV, gay identity, and the video revolution all collide as the young filmmaker Lelaina (Winona Ryder) is caught between her affection for musician/slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke) and ambitious TV executive Michael (Ben Stiller). For Washington Post’s Desson Howe, “By aiming specifically -- and accurately -- at characters in their twenties, debuting screenwriter Helen Childress and first-time director Stiller (known for his erstwhile Fox comedy show) achieve something even greater: They encapsulate an era.”

Slide 3: Flirting with Disaster (1996)

In David O. Russell’s indie comedy hit Flirting with Disaster, Stiller was cast as the lead, a happily married man whose burning curiosity about his real parents––he was adopted at birth––leads him on a madcap journey of slapstick proportions. Surrounded by great comic talents, Stiller perfects the role of the straight man by just letting things happen to him.’s Christopher Null underscores this point in his review: “Stiller's presence is deftly underplayed as he balances the performances of his supporting stars, which include wife Patricia Arquette, Mary Tyler Moore & George Segal as his brash adoptive parents, Richard Jenkins as a staunch yet progressive ATF bureau employee, Alan Alda & Lily Tomlin as Mel's real folks, and Glenn Fitzgerald as Mel's psychotic real brother.”

Slide 4: There's Something about Mary (1998)

The Farrelly brothers, who’d previously perfected their brand of gross out comedy, found the perfect mix of sweet and shocking in this romantic comedy.  When Ted (Ben Stiller), a nebbish guy living in Rhode Island, decides to find his boyhood love Mary (Cameron Diaz), he hires Pat (Matt Dillon), a shady private eye who takes a shine to Mary when he meets her. Soon a web of lies and deceptions surround poor Mary as each suitor tries to show up the competition. But Ted, like the movie itself, embodies both the hysterical and the human. James Berardinelli in Reel Reviews comments, “One reason that There's Something about Mary works (when it could have easily flopped) is because the actors are all perfect for their chosen parts. With different casting, I could see how half the jokes might have fallen flat. Ben Stiller, who understands comedy, makes us like and sympathize with Ted while laughing at him.”

Slide 5: Permanent Midnight (1998)

In Permanent Midnight, Stiller captures the dark underside of the comic persona in his portrayal of real-life TV writer and heroin addict Jerry Stahl. The manic energy that Stiller might have turned into a slapstick routine or comic patter is now transformed into an all-consuming drug addiction. Roger Ebert observed, “What Ben Stiller brings to the role is a kind of savage impatience. His character stabs his body anywhere with the needle--even in the neck--because the niceties are no longer of interest to a man who simply needs to get the stuff into his veins right away.”

Slide 6: Mystery Men (1999)

Loosely adapted from the indie comic book series Flaming Carrot Comics, Mystery Men showcases an A-team of comic talents, all playing sadsack superheroes whose powers are never equal to their ambitions. In this super talented cast (Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Eddie Izzard, among so many), Stiller stood out for the way he subverts his own comic persona. Stiller, who’s often cast as a character rendered nearly powerless by his own self-doubt, plays Mr. Furious, a dark force who has transformed all that nervous energy into a super power. Slate’s David Edelstein takes note that “Stiller, who struggles to turn his self-hatred into other-hatred, makes a hilariously morose seether.”

Slide 7: Meet the Parents (2000)

Ben Stiller took his loser persona to new heights (lows?) in Jay Roach’s wildly successful comedy about a sweet, sincere fellow, Greg Focker (Stiller), whose taken home to, well, meet the parents (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). Wanting desperately to put his best foot forward, Stiller instead sticks his foot in his mouth, in the muck, and in any variety of unpleasant situations. The comic team of Stiller and De Niro works so well partially because, as the Village Voice’s Jessica Winter suggests, “Ben Stiller's unfailingly inventive, often quite touching abilities as an all-occasion punching bag.”

Slide 8: Zoolander (2001)

Moving from straight man to silly and strange, Ben Stiller wrote, directed, starred in and produced Zoolander, a campy send-up of male fashion models. Pulling in everything and everyone––including his father (Jerry Stiller), his mother (Anne Meara), his wife (Christine Taylor), his sister (Amy Stiller), and his friends (Andy Dick and Owen Wilson)––Stiller creates an absurdist take on modern media. For Elvis Mitchell, the then-film critic for the New York Times, “The fun comes from how seamlessly Mr. Stiller blends everything together. He aligns The Manchurian Candidate (the espionage aspect of Zoolander includes the best makeup joke in years) and an attempt to address politics with a blistering send-up of pop culture.”

Slide 9: Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)

Dodgeball is, of course, a team sport, and Stiller’s a team player. In this silly romp about competing gyms, one lead by sweet-natured Peter La Fleur (Vince Vaughn) and the other by the black-clad villainous paradoxically named White Goodman (Stiller). But as Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwartzbaum points out Stiller’s character is perfectly crafted for maximum comic effect: “Stiller once again plays a preening SOB, but there is something in the chemistry of his crazy-eyed vanity (set off by a feathered coif and an artificially inflated codpiece) in combustion with Vaughn's lower-keyed, underachiever sanity that at once aerates and focuses Stiller's pugnacity.”

Slide 10: Tropic Thunder (2008)

Ben Stiller wrote, directed and starred in this all-out assault on Hollywood action films, method actors, and ego-driven directors. And while Stiller is hilarious as fading muscle actor Tugg Speedman, he is part of a hilarious ensemble (that includes Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, and Tom Cruise).  For many, Stiller’s stellar performance was as a writer and director. Newsweek’s David Ansen commented, “This raucous, low-down commentary on Hollywood filmmaking, war movies, narcissistic actors and the thin line between makebelieve and reality is the most giddily entertaining, wickedly smart and cinematically satisfying comedy in a season overloaded with yuk-'em-ups. If there's any justice, Thunder should be the breakthrough moment for Stiller as a director.”


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