Supermodel Derek Zoolander’s secret sorrow is his inability to walk to the left. “I’m not an ambiturner,” he wails. It’s one condition his alter ego, hyphenate Ben Stiller, has never faced.
The 2008 Museum of the Moving Image honoree won’t be pinned down in any one direction. As actor, writer and helmer, he successfully ricochets from broad, media-savvy farce to thoughtful contempo seriocomedy. Equally comfortable with characters sharp as a tack and dumb as a post, his bloodline grants him full access to pop Jerry Stiller’s volcanic temper as well as mom Anne Meara’s embracing warmth.
Ambiturner? Ben Stiller’s moves have been positively serpentine.
An ongoing concern is the nexus of showbiz and society, first explored through the wicked media satire of the Emmy-winning “The Ben Stiller Show.” Subsequently, all four Stiller-helmed features open with film or video footage commenting on itself, such as the listless, staticky channel-surfing of “The Cable Guy” whose identity was wholly formed by watching TV (or “Mr. Baby Sitter,” as his mother calls it).
“Tropic Thunder,” with its lead-off movie trailers indistinguishable from the real thing, spoofs actors’ inability to identify a core of true self apart from their celebrity. It’s an idea not far removed from the habits and prejudices already fully formed in the graduation video kicking off 1992’s “Reality Bites.”
As a comic thesp, Stiller’s scope has shifted away from the wide range of his TV show impersonations (Bono, De Niro, Springsteen) to juggle parallel traits of anger and cluelessness. His specialty has been self-absorbed dolts like Zoolander, described accurately as “an empty vessel; a shallow, dumb, vacuous moron.”
That titular simpleton supermodel is a lovable schmo, but add the inarticulate rage of the Mr. Furious character in “Mystery Men,” and you get Stiller’s classic bad guy and MTV Movie Award winner as best villain: the juiced-up former fattie White Goodman in “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story.” (“At Globo Gym we’re better than you — and we know it!”)
Conversely, when he retains the anger but not the likability, thesp stuns as the most disaffected sibling among “The Royal Tenenbaums,” or the sleazy drama teacher with a roving eye in “Your Friends & Neighbors.”
But in his very best work, Stiller makes yet another lateral move: He gives up the anger and separates himself from all the crazies in order to study them with scientific precision.
William Goldman once quoted a movie star as having asserted, “I don’t want to be the one who learns; I want to be the one who knows.” In his biggest hits, Stiller wants to be the one who understands, in order to bring everyone together. His innate seriousness makes him extremely useful in comedy, as a Keatonesque deadpan foil for the broad comedians in the passing parade.
Patiently waiting out the slew of geeks and poseurs who all think “There’s Something About Mary,” he’s blissfully undeterred by a painful zipper accident or a glob of organic “hair gel” until he carries off the heroine with bashful aplomb.
Through all the shenanigans of overbearing future father-in-law Robert De Niro, male nurse Gaylord “Greg” Focker (how many other stars would be comfortable carrying that moniker?) remains earnestly eager to please as he meets the parents and they “Meet the Fockers.” The classic Stiller hero rides out all humiliations, confident everything can be made right in the end.
In this sense, Stiller might be seen as the anti-Adam Sandler. Sandler’s zanies keep trying to stir up the pot at every opportunity — indeed, the pot makes no difference to him, because Sandler has no norm to which he aspires. Hellzapoppin’ will do.
But something in Stiller’s makeup conveys an utter belief in personal and societal balance. It appears first in valedictorian Winona Ryder’s sheepish grin in “Reality Bites,” upon announcing, “How can we repair all the damage we’ve inherited? The answer is simple” — only to see her note cards come up blank. She doesn’t know the answer, but she’s sure one exists.
We see it even more in the final post-credits shot of David O. Russell’s superb “Flirting With Disaster,” in which the odyssey of Stiller’s Mel Coplin to locate his birth parents and sense of self ends with the realization he’s had what matters all along: loving wife Patricia Arquette and a newborn son. Russell’s camera lingers on the family tableau: affectionate; still; beautiful.
Still in his early 40s, Stiller can look forward to many more paths and sidesteps. Some may take him in even more serious directions, like his underappreciated turn as the manic Jerry Stahl in “Permanent Midnight.” And the clock hasn’t yet run out on his dream role, “What Makes Sammy Run?”
But with luck, this prodigious ambiturner will keep turning back to his wheelhouse, the bright, decent, tolerant everyman trying so hard to understand and to make things better. We really need him now.