A Touch of Ben (The Retreads)

INTRODUCTION

A few short weeks ago, I didn’t even know (or care) that Ben ‘The Stiller’ Stiller had ever directed a movie. That all changed when I was fortunate enough to discover the first three films helmed by this titan of Hollywood comedy:

(see: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/banned-in-malaysia/)

After watching his first three mini-epics, I truly dared to believe that my brush with comedy greatness had reached its end, accepting the fact that Chinese censorship laws almost certainly prevented me from watching any further directorial efforts by The Stiller.

I was wrong. The gods of comedic cinema were smiling upon me. Buried somewhere on YouKu, China’s answer to a film streaming question that nobody asked, I dug up a second triumvirate of films from Mr. Benjamin Edward Meara Stiller.

I think it was the screenwriter Robert Towne who said that the definition of a movie classic should be ‘a film endlessly rewatchable with joy’. Although I’ve only seen his movies once, I would argue that The Stiller has never directed one of these. I would probably argue that he hasn’t even appeared in one, with the possible exception of… No, I got nothing really*.

Still, I remain (for reasons not entirely clear even to myself) impressed with this man’s directorial output and undeniable gift of at least semi-regular motion picture hilarity.

I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have another mostly spoiler free chat, this time focusing on his later work…

TROPIC THUNDER

“The worst thing about America isn’t that they’ll bomb your country. The worst thing is that they’ll come back twenty years later and make a movie about how bombing your country made their soldiers feel really sad.”

– Frankie Boyle

I really, really wanted to like this movie. It’s a genuinely brilliant idea – a satire of pretentious Hollywood in general and of overblown, melodramatic American war movies in particular – but the fact is that the finished film is almost total arse. It’s literally the worst film ever directed by Ben Stiller. One critic described it as “an assault in the guise of a comedy… like getting mugged by a clown.” That’s pretty accurate, and for all the wrong reasons too.

The fact that I found it funnier and more enjoyable towards the end either says that it’s poorly written and constructed in the beginning and middle, or that by then I had been helplessly desensitized to its scattershot lameness. It has a good cast, most of whom just aren’t very funny in it. Tom Cruise just isn’t very funny in anything, is he?

There are one-liners and dialogue exchanges that approach greatness, but none of the scenes or performances actually do (let alone the movie itself). Look past the blackface and the 2-dimensional non-American characters (both by now trademarks of The Stiller), and you can tell just how hard these people are trying to make a comedy epic,** but it ends up as a limp version of the sort of Academy Award nominated mess that it’s supposed to be poking with a slapstick. The fact that it was actually Academy Award nominated just shows how little Hollywood seems to appreciate irony.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

“Stop Dreaming. Start Living.” -eHarmony

This has all the Stiller thumbprints: pretty cinematography, jokes at the expense of non-American people, some scenes that go on and on seemingly forever without getting any funnier. But where Tropic Thunder was almost certainly his least impressive film, this was easily his most charming. It even manages to prove that Sean Penn almost has some semblance of a sense of humour.

The movie is a very loose remake of a film from the 1940s, which in turn was loosely adapted from an old American short story. I’ve never read it. But I’m not, on the whole, in love with the idea of Hollywood vanity projects based on satirical literature (there is not a pole long enough betwixt me and Jack Black’s Gulliver’s Travels. Not gonna happen.)

This retooled version of Walter Mitty, from the screenwriter who brought you OCD nightmare The Pursuit of HappYness and that film where people keep pelting Nicolas Cage with fast food, is pretty much a two hour advert for the dating website eHarmony.

The Stiller plays the eponymous Walter, a daydreamy, shagged out, white collar dude (the kind of man who would probably describe himself on eHarmony as ‘mature looking’) who deals with the photo negatives at Life Magazine.

The basic plot, if you are interested: Dude’s job is on the line when he loses the intended cover photo provided by a badass photojournalist. Walter suffers from what looks to me less like daydreams and more like schizophrenia but to The Stiller it’s all the same: a bunch of hallucinogenic sight gags that go on a little too long. Instead of using this psychotic superpower to mow friends and colleagues down with an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons, Walter digs into his 16-year-old savings account and goes skateboarding in Iceland for some reason.

Look, it could be worse. It could have been Owen Wilson.

ZOOLANDER 2

“I had no idea there were so many subtleties involved. Please accept my apologies.” -Penelope Cruz

Just as I found Tropic Thunder nowhere near as good as a lot of people seemed to think, I found this movie nowhere near as bad. I don’t know why.

I am not in the habit of carelessly utilizing the phrase ‘exactly a work of absolute genius’, but Zoolander 2 is definitely not exactly a work of absolute genius. It is good, though. And it is funny, possibly funnier than the first Zoolander (except for a few wtf scenes, including appearances by Benedict Cumberbatch and then Neil DeGrasse Tyson that just made me feel embarrassed for everyone involved).

Fifteen years after Derek Zoolander’s first mad and reasonably amusing adventures, this is the same mad and reasonably amusing little world as the original. The Stiller plays a now retired/reclusive/bearded hermit, eventually coaxed out of retirement by Billy Zane (yes, that’s right) and embroiled in a second evil conspiracy to bump off celebrities. This time support comes not just from Owen Wilson (conspicuously absent from The Stiller’s previous couple of ventures) but in the slinky form of Penelope Cruz’s swimsuit model turned INTERPOL ‘fashion police’ agent.

The film has celebrities lining up in droves and (sometimes literally) waiting to be executed. The quality of performances varies even more than the first one, but the storytelling, the mise en scène and the je nes c’est quoi are all top notch once again.

I already told you I don’t know why I liked this film, but I watched it with headphones and the gf kept asking if I was okay because she was concerned someone might be tickling a pig.

CONCLUSION

1994 was a long time ago. The fresh faced yuppie who looked so disappointed when Winona Rider broke his Dr. Zaius has matured into a middle-aged Hollywood badass. The Stiller is not always adept at splitting my cynical and life-hardened sides, but I have a lot of respect for anyone with the balls to direct a film, let alone someone who can direct this successfully. The man may not be on par with the kind of left-field comedy directors I usually like, but that’s okay. Dude probably has a lot more bank, and his films are almost always enjoyable enough.

Searching for a coherent theme in the later, less subtle work of Ben Stiller, I think it’s that all of his lead characters are asking the big question:

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Whether or not this is a reflection of the director’s own mental state, I cannot of course answer, but I am glad that I can now count myself among an elite few who were brave enough to intentionally watch every feature film directed by the erstwhile star of The Ben Stiller Show. The first three were mostly enjoyable. The next three were mostly watchable. Laughter was snorted. Wails of frustration were at time exuded. No tears of joy nor laughter were shed. But I watched them. How many of you are brave enough to do the same?

HEALTH WARNING:

I did not watch all of these movies in one day. I did not even watch them one after the other over consecutive days. Should you choose to do so please, for the love of God, consult a doctor or clinical psychologist. I don’t think even Ben Stiller would do that.


*(Royal Tenenbaums, maybe??)

**(and Matthew McConaughey in particular really is trying)

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