“Why don’t you get a job at the Burger-Rama? They’ll hire you. My lord, I saw on the TV they had this little retarded boy working the register.”
“Because I’m not retarded, mom. I was valedictorian of my university!”
“Well you don’t have to put that on your application.”
Okay, so I have a confession to make. Don’t let the title scare you, it isn’t that. Basically, I watched three movies directed by Ben Stiller. And none of them were terrible. Not a single one.
Although I like movies that are ‘saying something’ (at least to me), I also like a good laugh (usually just to distract me from the existential dread that comes with riding a merry-go-round on the outer fringes of a galaxy slowly circling the plug hole). Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find a film that can provide both.
I’m not a fan of stupid, gross out, or wide-of-the-mark comedies, which is why I tend to steer clear of all that ‘Frat Pack’ stuff. I lean more towards the Paul Giamattis and Bill Murrays of this world than the Vince Vaughns or Owen Wilsons.* I like at least half of Jim Carrey’s output and probably less than half of Will Ferrell’s, but I try to go into each Hollywood comedy with an open mind. Sometimes I’ve been rewarded with Stranger Than Fiction or Cold Souls, sometimes I’ve just sighed my way through the sequel to Dumb and Dumber.
I’m not saying that I suddenly think Ben Stiller is a neglected American auteur or anything like that, but after watching the first three films that he directed I must admit I’m surprised at how enjoyable they all were.
I don’t think any of us are going anywhere, so let’s have a mostly spoiler free chat about ‘em…
In 1994, ‘The Stiller’** made his directorial debut with this movie about disgruntled and confused Huston-based Generation Xers. It stars a sassy, enjoyable and pre-kleptomania Winona Ryder alongside Ethan Hawke, who’s Texan charm turned up in pretty much everything circa 93 to 98 (before starting to bug everyone for awhile and then eventually coming back into fashion). The slightly older (or older seeming) yuppie character who tries to foster Winona’s artistic career is played by the star of The Ben Stiller show.
If you like Clerks or Dazed and Confused, this is that kind of movie. Only less so.
THE CABLE GUY
My favourite in this trilogy of watchable semi-precious gems was The Stiller’s second feature from 1996. It was most notable at the time for spending a cool and then-record-breaking $20 million on Jim Carrey in the lead role (no wonder underwhelming lead Mathew Broderick looks so pissed off all the time, am I right?). The first-time scriptwriter also became a millionaire for his troubles, even if he was rewritten by an uncredited Judd Apatow (who went on to supposedly better things that have always failed to poke me in the funnybone).
The comedy here is broader than Reality Bites, and the story is weirder. Broderick moves out of his girlfriend’s place and he makes casual conversation with the affable and titular fella who installs cable in his new pad. This turns out to be a mistake, as the cable guy goes on to interfere with Broderick’s life in increasingly bizarre and outright psychotic ways.
The film has a bunch of ‘emerging comedic talent’ cameos: Jack Black (plus the ‘other guy from Tenacious D’ thrown in at the end), David Cross, Eric ‘my kid sister is Julia’ Roberts, plus the star of The Ben Stiller Show. Most of these people are pretty amusing, but there are some scenes that just fall flat – most notably a medieval dueling scene that will have you questioning wtf. Also, I don’t know what a one million dollar screenplay or a twenty million dollar performance should look like, but I’m pretty sure this ain’t it. It’s all a little bizarre and more than a little creepy in places, but a decent enough film with plenty to say about late-twentieth century culture (or lack thereof).
An intro to the ‘difficult third film’:
I have this feeling that in Hollywood, directors almost always stumble on the third go. after two hits, the third film is almost always their ‘bloated epic’ (aka, ‘big fuck-up’). I assume it has something to do with them getting bigger budgets and more power after their early success. Stick with me here on this mini-thesis: James Cameron’s first hit was The Terminator, which he followed with Aliens. His third film is that Ed Harris in a submarine movie, The Abyss. Terry Gilliam’s first hit was Time Bandits, which he followed with Brazil. His third film is the still legendary flop The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. For Ridley Scott it goes: Alien, Blade Runner, Tom Cruise fucking about in Tim Curry’s kitchen. David Lynch’s third film is Dune. Richard Stanley didn’t even make it that far, he spent his third movie hiding in a tree dressed as a monkey, watching through a pair of binoculars while someone else directed it.
Which brings us to…
Bloated epic this may be, but it was the biggest surprise in The Stiller’s triptych of early work. I thought I’d hate this movie, and I’m still not entirely sure why I didn’t.
Charlie Kaufman (who hasn’t yet directed a third film), said that “with a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything: every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world.” In fairness, Zoolander does just that. It’s a screenplay supposedly co-written by The Stiller himself (although we should always be dubious of Hollywood directors taking co-writing credits).
When judged on the basis of things like realism, pacing or conventional plotting then Zoolander should pretty much be an unmitigated disaster (in a way that the other two films are not), but as a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic, it becomes… well, sort of a zany Austin Powers-like world with its own internal logic.
The movie is colourful, silly, and absolutely loaded with celebrity cameos (including then jackass and now POTUS, ‘The Donald’, who even then didn’t know how to poke fun at himself). Performances and scenes once again vary. Davids both Bowie and Duchovny*** are solid gold, while other sequences, including a particularly unfunny moment where Owen Wilson and the star of The Ben Stiller Show jump about bashing a computer and chattering like monkeys, seemed to take up my entire afternoon. I’m not quite sure what the story (about two rival male models teaming up to prevent the assassination of the Malaysian prime minister) was actually trying to say but as Stanley Kubrick tells us, having something to say is secondary to having something you feel.
Not that I have any particular idea what The Stiller ‘feels’, either. Each movie had a vague sort of message about media manipulation, but let’s not forget that these stories are all directed by the successful son of two affluent television performers. I do know that he chooses his cinematographers well, and his movies have fairly good soundtracks. He also likes casting himself and members of his immediate family. And he seems to think blackface and being non-American are both funny for some reason.
Benjamin E.M. Stiller has gone on to make three other films as director, including the controversial Zoolander 2. I haven’t seen any of them, and I don’t even know if they’re on Chinese Netflix.
I did try watching Greenberg (which he didn’t direct), but I thought it was boring and I gave up early. There’s also one on there with a poster of Jennifer Aniston and a weasel, but I doubt I’ll bother to be honest.
*Although any longtime readers know that I, like any decent human being, liked The Internship and Dodgeball.
**(and I don’t know or care if anyone actually refers to him as this)
***(who’s performance as a former hand model turned X Files conspiracy theorist has washed away the ashen taste left by his own flaccid directorial venture the other day)