The Films of Ben Stiller
The Cable Guy (February 26/16)
An obvious departure for comedic star Jim Carrey, The Cable Guy follows Matthew Broderick's mild-mannered Steven Kovacs as he's increasingly menaced by his demented cable-tv installer (Jim Carrey's Chip Douglas). It's ultimately not difficult to see why The Cable Guy was considered a disappointment upon its original theatrical release, as the movie, despite Carrey's persistently over-the-top turn as the maniacal central character, generally resembles a fairly run-of-the-mill "blank from hell" thriller more than it does an actual comedy - with filmmaker Ben Stiller opting to emphasize the progressively dark elements contained within Lou Holtz Jr's screenplay (including an unexpectedly violent sequence wherein Carrey's deranged figure beats a would-be paramour of Steven's girlfriend). And although Stiller has peppered the narrative with a handful of striking sequences - eg Chip offers up a memorably unhinged karaoke performance of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" - The Cable Guy suffers from a midsection that far-too-often relies on the tropes and cliches found within movies of this type. (The ending is especially hackneyed in that way, to be sure.) By the time the eye-rollingly heavy-handed conclusion rolls around, The Cable Guy has firmly cemented its place as a sporadically engaging yet often misguided thriller that passes the time well enough, admittedly, but accomplishes little else.
Zoolander casts Ben Stiller as the title character, a moronic male model who finds himself caught up in a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia. It's a blatantly silly premise that is, for the most part, executed to entertaining and hilarious effect by filmmaker Stiller, as the director, working from a screenplay cowritten with Drake Sather and John Hamburg, has peppered Zoolander with a decidedly affable vibe that's heightened by a raft of engaging supporting performances and laugh-out-loud funny comedic set pieces. (In terms of the latter, it's impossible to downplay the effectiveness of the justifiably legendary "school for ants" sequence.) And although the movie remains quite watchable from start to finish, Zoolander does suffer from a somewhat erratic feel that's compounded and perpetuated by a patchy, almost episodic narrative - which ensures that certain stretches of the film fare much, much better than others. (An obvious low point, for example, is a tedious interlude detailing Zoolander's overnight stay with rival Hansel and love interest Matilda.) Such instances of less-than-stellar happenings are generally allayed by an atmosphere that's otherwise (and pervasively) agreeable, with the continuing effectiveness of Stiller's work as the moronic yet charming central character playing a pivotal role in confirming the movie's mild success.
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 obvious, 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.
Zoolander 2 (March 9/16)
It's perhaps not surprising to discover that Zoolander 2, for the most part, comes off as a fairly substantial disappointment that pales in comparison to its affable predecessor, as the movie falls prey to the bigger-is-better syndrome that seems to affect most comedy sequels. (See: Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Dumb and Dumber To, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, etc, etc). The movie, which follows Ben Stiller's Derek Zoolander as he and former rival Hansel (Owen Wilson) attempt to foil a massive conspiracy, suffers from an opening half hour that's overflowing with a raft of misguided, unfunny sequences and characters, and it's impossible not to wonder just what scripters Stiller, Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg were thinking in terms of some of the film's more overtly abominable elements. (This is particularly true of several of the movie's nails-on-a-chalkboard supporting characters, including Kristin Wiig's Donatella Versace-inspired Alexanya Atoz and Kyle Mooney's supremely irritating Don Atari.) Zoolander 2 does, at the very least, segue into an admittedly watchable midsection that's perpetuated by Stiller's agreeable turn as the moronic title character, although it's worth noting that even at its best the film is decidedly (and disappointingly) lacking in any laugh-out-loud bits of comedy. It's ultimately clear that Zoolander 2's failure is a consequence of its overly ambitious sensibilities, and there is, in the end, little doubt that the movie would've benefited from a much simpler, far more pared-down approach.