There's something about... Stiller
Published: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 17, 2005 at 10:19 p.m.
It's a chilly weekday evening in Southern California suburbia, and people are trickling up to a megaplex box office window to purchase tickets for the season's blockbuster comedy, Universal Pictures' "Meet the Fockers."
The movie, which had grossed more than $200 million after only three weeks in domestic release, features an all-star cast - Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand among it. But one of the film's major draws is the 39-year-old, curly-haired Ben Stiller, who has emerged as a box-office powerhouse.
For the last year, Stiller has been on a roll. Besides "Meet the Fockers," the sequel to 2000's hit comedy "Meet the Parents," Stiller starred in three other successful films in 2004 - "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story," which raked in $114.3 million in domestic ticket sales; "Starsky & Hutch," which grossed $88.2 million domestically; and "Along Came Polly," which took in $88.1 million domestically. That steady box-office clout has elevated Stiller's paycheck to about $15 million per picture.
But defining Stiller's appeal isn't easy, even for his audience.
"It just seems like he makes movies out of ordinary stuff," says Jay Reyes, 23, standing near the theater's ticket window. "Like, who's going to make a movie out of dodge ball?" he chuckles. "Ben Stiller."
Oscar-winner Hoffman, who plays Stiller's free-spirited father in "Meet the Fockers," says what has impressed him about Stiller is that he isn't looking for the laugh so much as the irony of a situation. "There's a great danger (in actors) trying to get the laugh," Hoffman says.
"If you are in a scene with him, you could not wish to be with a better foil," Hoffman says. "He will set you up. It's like basketball. He doesn't take every shot, like some basketball players we know. He'll pass you the ball because he's interested in the scene."
Hoffman says it also surprised him to discover Stiller has an actor's sensibility rather than a performer's.
"Usually, people who come from comedy tend to perform the part rather than act it," Hoffman says. "There is a difference. But I (realized after working with him that) he came from an acting base. The reason is, he was never satisfied, which is kind of a core ingredient to being a good actor."
Owen Wilson, who has worked with Stiller on such films as "The Cable Guy," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Meet the Parents," and has a small role in "Meet the Fockers," says audiences were introduced to Stiller's brand of humor more than a decade ago when Stiller had a comedy show on MTV and later signed with Fox, which aired "The Ben Stiller Show" in the 1992-93 television season.
"I think people sort of began catching on to his humor with his (Fox) show," Wilson says. "It didn't have a big audience, but it developed sort of a cult following. And I think he sort of built on that to where people kind of caught up with him."
Stiller doesn't rely on stand-up routines to make people laugh, Wilson says.
"He couldn't be further from a class clown or somebody who is on all the time," Wilson says. "Sometimes, that can be a little exhausting, having somebody who is always cracking jokes. That's not Ben, and that's not his brand of humor.
"I remember like on 'Starsky & Hutch,' it seemed at one point the (advance audience) tracking wasn't very good."
In interviews, Wilson says, "Ben was making jokes about that. 'The comedy team that nobody wants to see!' It was like slightly black humor."
Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler may have bigger marquee names, but Stiller's box-office appeal is growing. It now reaches beyond U.S. shores, where American comedy doesn't easily translate with foreign audiences.
As evidence, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Stiller's blockbuster "Meet the Parents," took in 49.7 percent, or $164.2 million, of its total ticket sales abroad, while last year's "Along Came Polly" garnered 48.5 percent, or $83 million, in foreign markets.
That is not to say Stiller hasn't had his share of flops. "Envy," a DreamWorks comedy co-starring Jack Black, grossed $12.2 million last year, and his pairing with Drew Barrymore in the Miramax comedy "Duplex" sank like a stone after sitting on a shelf for at least a year, grossing a mere $9.7 million. But when he's in the right vehicle, he reaches all demographics, from teens to adults and both sexes as well, studio executives agree, and his movies are not astronomically expensive ("Fockers," on which Universal partnered with DreamWorks, cost an estimated $80 million).
Stiller can be funny whether he's doing broad comedy or just delivering a pained expression, said Stacey Snicer, head of Universal Pictures.
There's a scene in "Meet the Fockers," Snider said, in which the families are sitting around having drinks outside when Hoffman strays into an inappropriate conversation, and Stiller falls backward out of his chair. "You can't help but laugh when he flips over," Snider said.
Conversely, there's another scene where Hoffman becomes upset after learning that his son had gone duck hunting with father-in-law-to-be De Niro, who is looking on.
"Ben doesn't say anything," Snider says. "He knows he (loses) either way. He makes this great perplexed face and decides it's best to exit. People (in the audience) howl at nothing."
Jay Roach, who directed "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers," compares Stiller to the great silent film comedian Buster Keaton.
"There's the same look in his eyes," Roach noted, a feeling that "I want this thing so much, but something is about to prevent me from getting it, but I'll cope the best I can, but there is an awareness of doom."
Hoffman also cites the Keaton comparison. There is a scene in the film in which Stiller and Hoffman are pulled over by a traffic cop and Stiller is left shaking on the ground after being zapped with a Taser gun by the cop.
"I had just seen a couple of Keaton films and when he did that Taser stuff, after he finished, I went up to him and said, 'That's as good as it gets. That's as good as Keaton would do it,"' Hoffman recalled.
Producer Bill Mechanic headed production at 20th Century Fox when the Farrelly brothers cast Stiller in their 1998 comedy "There's Something About Mary." Mechanic said he argued against using Stiller because he didn't think he was a big enough star, but he realized what a mistake it would have been after watching audiences roar with laughter when Stiller's character, a high school student who arrives to take Cameron Diaz to the prom, catches his private parts in his zipper.
"I said to Ben afterward, 'I was totally wrong,"' Mechanic recalled. Audiences are able to identify with the "everyman" quality in Stiller, Mechanic said, whether he's playing it relatively straight in "Meet the Fockers" or flamboyant in "Zoolander."
Behind the camera, Stiller has been steadily building his resume as a producer, director and writer.
With his producing partner, Stuart Cornfeld, Stiller's production company, Red Hour, recently renewed its first-look deal with DreamWorks and, according to Daily Variety, their first project to go into production under the DreamWorks logo will be a comedy titled "Date School." The studio is also looking to have Stiller direct and star in "Tropic Thunder," based on a script he wrote with Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux.
The son of veteran comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, the New York-born Stiller is married to actress Christine Taylor (Marcia Brady in "The Brady Bunch Movie"), who co-starred with her husband in "Zoolander" and "DodgeBall." They have a daughter, Ella Olivia, who was born in 2002.
Roach said he wouldn't be surprised if Stiller eventually moved into more cerebral roles, the way Bill Murray has with films such as "Lost in Translation."
"He's done a lot of serious roles," Roach said of Stiller. "He was amazing in 'Permanent Midnight.' I think he is capable of anything, really."
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