The Films of Ben Stiller
The Cable Guy
Tropic Thunder (August 12/08)
An uneven yet consistently hilarious comedy, Tropic Thunder follows several movie stars (including Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman, Jack Black's Jeff Portnoy, and Robert Downey Jr's Kirk Lazarus) as they find themselves unknowingly embroiled in a real-life battle with deadly drug traffickers while shooting an expensive Vietnam epic. The film, directed and co-written by Stiller, boasts an admittedly uneven sensibility that never becomes as entirely problematic as one might've expected, with the the relentlessly irreverent screenplay and almost uniformly compelling performances certainly proving instrumental in sustaining the viewer's continuing interest. There's little doubt, however, that it's Downey Jr's absolutely spellbinding turn as Lazarus - an Australian award winner who's undergone surgery to portray the movie-with-the-movie's black sergeant - that stands as Tropic Thunder's most indelible and flat-out entertaining element, as the actor's comically exaggerated delivery and mannerisms ensure that his mere presence perks up even the simplest of sequences (his "full retard" speech is alone worth the price of a ticket). Stiller, Black, and their various co-stars are also quite good, yet it's not without a small degree of surprise that an unbilled Tom Cruise inevitably establishes himself as the film's secret weapon - with his go-for-broke, scene-stealing performance as vicious studio boss Les Grossman unquestionably a highlight within an already impressive effort. It's subsequently not surprising to note that Tropic Thunder is at its best during its more overtly character-driven sequences, although - admittedly - there's no denying the effectiveness of the movie's increasingly expansive action set pieces.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (January 22/14)
Based on James Thurber's short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty follows the meek title character (Ben Stiller) as he embarks on a rather epic adventure to track down a reclusive photographer (Sean Penn's Sean O'Connell). Before it reaches that point, however, the movie primarily concerns itself with Walter's day-to-day difficulties and his penchant for daydreaming away his problems. Filmmaker Stiller, working from Steve Conrad's screenplay, does a nice job of initially establishing the title character and his low-key existence, although, by that same token, it's clear that the storyline, in its early stages, has been adorned with a few too many plot threads (eg Walter's crush on Kristen Wiig's Cheryl, Walter's dealings with his sister and mother, Walter's rivalry with Adam Scott's smug Ted, etc). It's clear, then, that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty improves substantially as it charges into its globetrotting midsection, with the film's radical shift in tone, which isn't quite as seamless as one might've hoped, admittedly, paving the way for a second half revolving mostly around Walter's wanderlust and the degree to which it ultimately changes and improves his life. Stiller's expectedly stirring turn as the central character plays an integral role in the movie's success, to be sure, with the actor's affable performance matched by a strong supporting case that includes, among others, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, and Patton Oswalt. By the time the very sweet, very affecting finale rolls around, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has confirmed its place as a superior comedy/drama that's often much more profound than its marketing materials may have indicated.