Ben Stiller has the rare distinction of starring in two of the funniest American films of the last decade, the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary and David O. Russell's lesser known Flirting with Disaster. Stiller also has the rather more common distinction of starring in a lot of utter rubbish. It will probably come as no surprise that Along Came Polly, out on video this week, falls into the latter category.
In Polly, Stiller plays Ruben Feffer, an insurance risk assessor who is predictably terrified of any risk in his personal life. (Think a comic--or would-be comic--variation on The Conversation's Harry Caul.) Shortly after his new bride leaves him during their honeymoon, he falls for former middle-school classmate Polly (Jennifer Aniston), a free spirit who teaches him to live on the edge by eating nuts that other people have touched and learning to salsa dance. That's right: Stiller doesn't quit his tedious day job to write a novel or visit Africa; he learns to salsa dance. Wait, I almost forgot: He also recommends his company insure an appallingly bad-risk client, and shreds some perfectly nice throw pillows that are somehow supposed to symbolize the barrenness of his life. That's basically it. The plot never develops, the only memorable jokes are the ones that are memorably bad, and neither lead comes close to making us care whether they get together or not. Though Aniston is onscreen a good deal, her character never really makes any sense. (You get a truer feel for her Rachel Green from any five-minute slice of "Friends.") And while we spend even more time in Stiller's presence, all we ever really learn is that he's uptight and prone to occasional fits of petulance.
That, of course, describes most of the roles Stiller has played in his ten-year film career. Michael Grates (Stiller's character in Reality Bites), Mel Coplin (Flirting with Disaster), Ted Stroehman (There's Something About Mary), Mr. Furious (Mystery Men), Greg Focker (Meet the Parents), Derek Zoolander (Zoolander), Chas Tenenbaum (The Royal Tenenbaums), Alex Rose (Duplex), and Ruben Feffer (Along Came Polly) may not be quite interchangeable (some make more money than others, for instance, and only one imagines himself a superhero), but they generally fit the same mold: neurotic, self-involved, and frequently peevish. This schtick may be less over-the-top than, say, Adam Sandler's sensitive-guy-who-nonetheless-could-blow-at-any-minute routine, but it's no less schticky.
This too, is not terribly surprising: Comic actors, like dramatic ones, have their comfortable niches, from Bill Murray's sardonic schlubbism to Jim Carrey's manic plasticity. What separates Stiller from such performers is this: His schtick isn't funny. A good comedian has to be able to transcend mediocre material--imagine, for a moment, any actor other than Carrey trying to get away with Ace Ventura--and Stiller has yet to show he can do this. His comedy is too tight, too angry, and too reactive. It's the comedy of frustration, which requires viewers either to empathize with his ritual humiliations--in Polly these include mashing his face against an opponent's fat, hairy belly during a basketball game and using a precious hand-embroidered towel to wipe his post-diarrheal bottom--or to revel in them. As the protagonist of most of his films, Stiller is clearly supposed to have our empathy, but in practice he rarely seems to deserve it. He is selfish and ill-tempered without expanding either characteristic to a comic extreme. If Hugh Grant's character in Love Actually was an underdog in overdog's clothing, Stiller frequently plays the reverse: a character with all the unpleasant emotional trappings of a driven, Type A personality, but little of the success. Greater comic gifts could render this shortcoming inconsequential: Neither of the obvious models for Stiller's brand of quasi-semitic neurosis--Woody Allen and Albert Brooks--built their careers on likeability. But Stiller lacks Allen's nervous blend of self-deprecation and grandiosity and Brooks's raw, sometimes painful neediness (not to mention someone as gifted as either of them writing his lines). A closer parallel to Stiller's onscreen persona might be Joel Fleischman, the Rob Morrow character from the early 1990s TV series "Northern Exposure." The main function of Morrow's uptight, New York-bred character was to serve as a foil for all the quirky, lovable Alaskans he encountered in the quasi-magical town of Cicely. Stiller has been at his best in similar circumstances, playing the stressed-out straight man pinballing between weirdos in Flirting, Mary, and to a lesser extent Tenenbaums. But when he lacks strong supporting performances, Stiller's underlying anxiety and aggression threaten to overwhelm a film. At best, the result is an average comedy like Meet the Parents. More typically, it's a train wreck like Zoolander, Duplex, or Polly.
It may be that this lack of ease as a performer, this tendency to try a little too hard, is a reflection of Stiller himself. If the roles he plays are often underachievers, Stiller himself is not. This is, after all, a man who had his own (short-lived) TV show at 25 and has starred in a dozen movies in the past five years. The disjunction between Stiller and his characters becomes apparent at one point in Meet the Parents. In one of a series of vignettes in which he is embarrassed in front of his girlfriend's family and ultra-successful ex-boyfriend, he is forced to borrow a swimsuit for a romp in the pool. The suit is, of course, a tiny Speedo, and we await the moment when Stiller will emerge from the house, flabby and humiliated. The joke is spoiled, though, by the fact that far from being flabby, Stiller looks like someone who spends a good deal of time with a personal trainer--not Brad-Pitt-buff perhaps but closer, in Charles Atlas terms, to the "after" than the "before." Though he does his best to cover himself with his hands and look abashed, Stiller merely comes off as ridiculous: He has, after all, the kind of body that people wear Speedos specifically to show off. In an age when even model-thin actresses will pack on the pounds for a movie role, Stiller's unwillingness to take even a brief hiatus from his ab machine smacks of a personal vanity very much at odds with the loserish character he's playing.
When Stiller first introduced his anal-retentive persona on the big screen, in Reality Bites, he was not the hero but the foil. (The movie has just been rereleased in a special tenth anniversary edition, proving that it's not just politicians, old buildings, and prostitutes that get respectable with age.) The irony is that in Reality Bites, which Stiller also directed, he's actually pretty likable--at least compared to the film's hero, Ethan Hawke, with whom Stiller is competing for the affection of Winona Ryder. (This is the rare film in which you root for the stars to hook up not because they will make each other happy, but because they're far too annoying to inflict on anyone else.) It's worrisome that early in his career Stiller could so easily find a thread of likability in a character we're supposed to be rooting against, but increasingly he struggles to do so even when playing characters intended to have our sympathies. It's time, in other words, for Ben Stiller to find a new schtick. He can start by losing the ab machine.
The Home Movies List:
Joel Fleischman ("Northern Exposure"). Add Rob Morrow's name to the list of TV stars who thought they belonged on the big screen but discovered they didn't. (No, Mr. Clooney, we don't mean you.) The show's first season, just released on DVD, is earnest almost to the point of hokiness--a comforting respite from the irony of the post-"Seinfeld" age.
Lester Burnham (American Beauty). A masterful performance that elevated an otherwise trite film. The Lester Burnham of the film's beginning and the Lester Burnham of the film's end bear almost no resemblance to one another, yet Spacey makes the metamorphosis seamless.
Larry Sanders ("The Larry Sanders Show"). Watch it once for Garry Shandling's neurotic talk-show host; watch it again and again for the great Rip Torn as his ferociously protective producer. If you've only seen the show in basic-cable reruns, you're missing half of its profane genius. The first season was released on DVD almost two years ago; others, distressingly, have yet to follow.
Jerry Mitchell (Three O'Clock High). Casey Siemaszko has made a career of bit parts as hoodlums and cops. Had more people seen his performance in this delightful Coens-esque high-school comedy from 1987 it might have been different.
Anne (Sex, Lies, and Videotape). A useful reminder that neurosis is not the exclusive property of Manhattanites and Californians. Andie McDowell has never again been as good as she was playing a repressed Southern housewife, and one doubts she ever will be.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.