America's most beloved movie star got a hooting ovation on Letterman last week, just by walking onto the CBS stage. He had a big movie coming out; he and his wife are one of Hollywood's cool couples; and he's doing a big project with Spielberg for his next film. No, it wasn't Tom Hanks. It was Ben Stiller -- the hardest-working man in show business.
That title used to belong to James Brown, but there's no doubt the sweaty crown is Stiller's these days. In the past six months alone, he has lent his comedy talent to Along Came Polly, Starsky & Hutch, Envy and Dodgeball. They all opened -- all but Envy, which SOUNDED like a good idea -- because of him. And while Starsky & Hutch slowly eked its way into solid gold status, Dodgeball looks like a big, smack-in-your-face bull's-eye right out of the blocks. 2 1/2 hits out of 4 -- not bad. Stiller also produced Dodgeball and cast his wife, Christine Taylor ("Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!") to make it another family affair like Zoolander, in which both his wife and father, Jerry Stiller, appeared. Ben has more in the pipeline including Meet The Fockers -- the sequel to one of many certified hits, Meet The Parents -- Sledge: The Story of Frank Sledge, and if that weren't plenty, he will also be directing and starring in a serious piece, What Makes Sammy Run? based on the infamously hard to do Hollywood novel of the same name, a project in the Dreamworks for awhile.
Like, how does he do it?
And how, PMK asks, does he do all of that without getting overexposed?
Wile E. Coyote called himself a Super Genius on his business card and like the cartoon character, Stiller's super genius is building contraptions that makes us laugh. Like the wily Wile E., Stiller need not be the whole show either, but only a part of it, and frequently the butt of the joke, in what has been a series of amazingly ego-free successes. Stiller is more of a comedy entrepreneur, fitting into projects and letting go of concern for his "stardom," his image taking a backseat to the overall fun. And it's been his trademark from the start. Lest we forget, it was Stiller who launched the careers of Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo and Andy Dick on The Ben Stiller Show, and did so happily, sharing the spotlight with these actors and others -- like frequent movie sidekick Owen Wilson -- who've each proved Stiller's taste in friends is gold, too. Maybe young Ben got some of his show biz insight watching the career of his parents, Stiller and Meara, both individually and as a comedy team, go up and down. Strike while the iron is hot, they taught him. And nice guys finish first. And be nice anyway, because the whims of show biz are so cruel, you don't know how long you've got. And mostly... just keep plugging away.
Wherever he learned it, Stiller is putting it into practice as a quadruple threat who writes, stars, produces and sometimes directs -- even though that is his least best thing. He has only Adam Sandler as a rival for "Best Work Ethic" and puts Mike Meyers and Jim Carrey to shame for his ability to churn out comic product. He even appears on MTV now and then to keep in touch with the next wave of his fan base. And many new characters -- like fashion model Derek Zoolander -- come out of these exercises in guerilla comedy.
Dodgeball is just the latest example of Stiller fitting himself into a youth-targeted project without taking all the oxygen out of the room. He could have been the star of the movie, the good guy, but chose the villain role instead. In Dodgeball he plays White Goodman, the steroid-head owner of Globo Gym where the motto is: "We're better than you and we know it." With a Freddie Mercury mustache, tinted hair and Nike Pump jockstrap, Stiller just looks funny. He gave the good guy role to Vince Vaughn. Stiller has less screen time than Vaughn, and maybe the better part, but it was a smart decision either way. And he's clearly having fun doing it.
Likewise he didn't insist on calling the shots as the director on this either, mentoring instead first-time writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber who, thanks to Stiller, is part of an amazing story of how one movie got made. Every studio in town passed on Thurber's script until it landed on the desk of Stiller's production company receptionist who got Stiller to read it. The rest is sports movie history. Dodgeball will become one more in a string of like-toned comedies that have the unique Stiller touch. It combines a little Farrelly Brothers, a little L.A. Show Biz hip and some great catch phrases, including Zoolander ("I feel like I'm taking crazy pills!") and Cable Guy, a much maligned but very funny comedy that Stiller also directed.
Does Stiller have typical actor urges to do "serious" work? Hey, do agents want to produce? The answer is: of course. Nobody's totally immune. And though he isn't known for that as much, it should not be discounted as a vanity pursuit. I don't know if Permanent Midnight really got the raves it should have for Stiller who played Jerry Stahl, the drug addict hero of his autobiographical novel into film. There are some moments in that odyssey that still hit a nerve as Stiller meanders through the haze of drugs and the even stranger world of L.A. sit-coms. But my personal dramatic favorite is a little known movie called The Zero Effect, an update of Sherlock Holmes in which Stiller plays Watson to Bill Pullman's agoraphobic Holmes. Underplayed by Stiller, he's great in it. And gets another A+ for effort.
The bottom line for the hardest working man in the 310 is that the work is good, and despite his changing roles in each project he seems to find the best fit for himself and do what's best, say it with me, "for the good of the project" a phrase that gets bandied about more that "Are those real?" Zoolander, Cable Guy, Dodgeball, Meet the Parents and Something About Mary are comedy classics because of his talent for fitting in. And Stiller is only getting started.
Hard work and being a nice guy pays off.
Here in Hollywood?
P.S. This weekend's disastrous opening for Around The World In 80 Days proves a point: it's the poster, stupid. The Jackie Chan vehicle is a fun family title distributed by Disney, and should have won big points for name recognition but was marketed badly, including one of the worst posters ever. You tell me what's going on in that one-sheet? It doesn't say what it is, it doesn't invite, it's even hard to see. A big Here In Hollywood Boo! to this audience killer.