Will Ben Stiller’s Characters Ever Grow Up?

Photo: Amazon Studios

Over the past two decades or so, Ben Stiller has created a body of work that often centers on his characters’ inability to handle adulthood and overcome their adolescent neuroses. Here he is in this year’s Brad’s Status, worrying about how much more successful his friends are in life. There he is in Greenberg (2010), paralyzed by the fact that the world never bent to his will, and still unable to settle down and stick to anything. Or look at While We’re Young (2014), where he and his wife, Naomi Watts, are suddenly captivated by the freedom and charisma of 20-something DIY filmmaker Adam Driver and his ice-cream-making boho wife Amanda Seyfried. Go back further and you’ll find him in Flirting With Disaster (1996), going across America to try to find his biological parents in an attempt to discover who he really is. (Even his cameo in that same year’s The Cable Guy, in which he plays a comical variation on the Menendez brothers, suggests someone stuck in a twisted emotional adolescence.)

In his bigger films, Stiller is infantilized more broadly: In the Meet the Parents series, he’s always at the withering mercy of his father-in-law Robert De Niro, which usually prompts him to revert immediately to the awkwardness of childhood, back when his full name (Gaylord T. Focker) was the source of perpetual shame. Part of the fun of those movies (when they are fun, that is) lies in watching Ben Stiller regress. Look at Zoolander (2001), in which his dopey, veteran male supermodel goes back home to coal-mining country, only to be met with his working-class family’s derision and disapproval. Or There’s Something About Mary (1998), which opens with a flashback to Stiller’s nerdy Ted, drowning in braces, and a prom night catastrophe involving his suit and his genitalia — an event that his character never quite got over. In Ben Stiller movies, childhood is almost always a source of endless (and often hilarious) trauma. And the more he tries to get away from it, the quicker he’s pulled back in. Will Ben Stiller ever manage to grow up? Can he? Should he?

Of course, childishness drives much of American comedy. (Hell, childishness drives much of American cinema.) In the pantheon of modern Hollywood funnymen, actors like Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey once cornered the market on stunted man-children and surreal, crypto-adolescent weirdos. Stiller doesn’t have the plasticity of Carrey or the misshapen lunacy of Sandler or the overgrown awkwardness of Will Ferrell. There’s something frankly ordinary about him. Think back to Reality Bites, his 1994 directorial debut, made before he established his comic persona: There, he played a reasonably good-looking, gainfully employed young TV executive who dated Winona Ryder’s confused, recent college grad; his very stability seemed to be his main appeal. (Of course, she deep-sixed him for philosophy-spouting wannabe alt-rocker and/or Gap model Ethan Hawke, but hey, 1994.)

Since that film, Stiller hasn’t entirely shed that aspect of his identity. Indeed, there’s usually a surface diligence to his characters. He rarely plays a layabout or slacker. (When he does — as in Greenberg — it’s actually quite notable, even shocking.) But so often, his crisis of confidence centers around his job: In The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), he’s a photo-library manager who yearns for the adventurous life of the photographers with whom he works. In Meet the Parents (2000), much is made of the fact that he’s a male nurse. In 2004’s Envy (a movie whose title could be slapped onto pretty much any Ben Stiller effort), he works at a sandpaper factory with his colleague Jack Black, who then becomes a wealthy inventor and the object of Stiller’s scorn and jealousy. In Brad’s Status, the fact that he started his own nonprofit results in his constantly fretting about the fact that his closest friends from college all became wealthier and more successful than he did. Even when Stiller’s characters are wildly successful at their jobs, a certain insufficiency creeps in. Think of Tropic Thunder (2008), in which he plays a preening, massively successful action star … who nevertheless seems to have difficulty emoting convincingly, and needs to be coached by an even-more-acclaimed thespian, played by Robert Downey Jr.

Over the years, Stiller has found a way to merge this surface plainness with a sense of inner, neurotic torment. He is a fascinating in-between type – a man who has often assumed the responsibilities of being an adult without achieving the emotional maturity required of it. That makes him an ideal Everyman: Does any grown-up ever really feel like a grown-up? Don’t we all feel like if you scratch our surfaces enough we’ll reveal just how secretly unprepared we are for the real world? That’s the secret of Ben Stiller’s success: He connects with a universal sense of inadequacy within us all.

In this sense, Brad’s Status feels like the ultimate Ben Stiller movie. You could say it’s a better, more poignant version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Stiller’s ambitious, bloated, years-in-the-making adaptation of James Thurber’s classic short story. (In his review of Brad’s Status, David Edelstein notes that it “could be a grim, 21st-century meditation on the same themes” as Mitty.) That earlier film was an earnest attempt to find the wonder in the wandering imagination of its hero. It didn’t work for a number of reasons, but one of them was the fact that Ben Stiller is way too interesting and complicated an onscreen presence to play an innocent dreamer.

There’s another fold to all this, of course, which is that Stiller’s characters usually have to defeat their insufficiency and fear of adulthood. To put it another way, they have to overcome their innate Ben Stillerness in order to succeed. And that usually requires going through the humiliations of the damned. In this sense, Brad’s Status is a bit different: We know throughout that Brad has to stop worrying about what other people think of him and start focusing on his college-bound son, who really needs him. But the film also seems like it’s building up to some grand denouement in which Brad will be exposed for the petty narcissist that he is, thereby learning his lesson. But the final, surprisingly quiet scene between father and son — a far cry from the escalating embarrassments we might be anticipating — turns out to be one of the high points of the movie.

Even though Brad’s Status is one of his best pictures in many a moon, its lightness of touch also suggests that Stiller might be coming to the end of this run of emotional juveniles. In Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), which is playing the New York Film Festival and will open later in October, Stiller seems to be trying something different. This time, he shares the screen with Adam Sandler, who plays an unemployed, divorced, middle-aged father struggling with his inadequacy. Sandler is doing a moodier, more understated variation on his usual persona. But Stiller goes somewhat against type, as Sandler’s far more successful and responsible younger half-brother — a wealth manager to the stars who jets in and out from Los Angeles. Indeed, he seems to be the kind of person Ben Stiller characters usually wind up resenting.

Of course, that’s only part of the story: This being a Noah Baumbach film, both brothers (as well as their sister, played by Elizabeth Marvel) have to contend with the various issues they have with their parents, issues which have in various ways poisoned their lives. Which does, yes, bring us back to where we started. But even so, for much of The Meyerowitz Stories, it’s nice to see Stiller play a character who is at least somewhat successful, driven, maybe even satisfied — not constantly looking on in fretful envy at the rest of the world. It suggests a glimmer of hope for the future, and maybe even a new direction in his career. Because if Ben Stiller can grow up, so can we.

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for The Village Voice.

Will Ben Stiller’s Characters Ever Grow Up?