Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Committing to the Joke, or Why Ben Stiller Hasn't Helmed a Good Movie Since 'The Cable Guy'

If you've spent much time talking with me about any kind of narrative media at all (mostly movies and TV, but I'm all for talking print and theater), I've probably bored you with my theory about committing to the joke. I believe that, in comedy, as well as innumerable other things, you have to wholeheartedly commit if you want the joke to mean something. Smarmy self-awareness, halfhearted delivery, taking it all back in the end (the "Just Saying" corollary)... all deadly when you want to produce something that actually means something. Craig Ferguson's great at it, Ricky Gervais is [usually] great at it, Louis CK's great at it, The Perry Bible Fellowship, Patton Oswalt, Chappelle's Show, Observe & Report, and more than a few episodes of Deadwood understand exactly what it means to commit to the joke.

So, what does this have to do with Ben Stiller? Simply, Stiller has mastered the art of almost committing to the joke, but then taking it all back in the end and in doing so, reinforcing every single stereotype about lazy American audiences who don't want their entertainment to be remotely challenging or make them think even a bit (shockingly, he's become one of America's most consistently successful comedic performers). Whether acting or directing, Stiller's lobbed underhand throws right down the middle for close to a decade, each one getting hit further out of the park than the last. This didn't happen in a vacuum; there was a turning point, an inciting incident. The Cable Guy.

The Cable Guy is unapologetic, discomforting, and even kind of relentless. It commits to the joke the way The King of Comedy commits, turning Matthew Broderick's character Steve's life into a grim, nightmarish hellscape that can only be processed through laughter. Jim Carrey's Chip (if that's even the cable guy's real name) repeatedly shifts from pathetic to manic in the blink of an eye, and nearly destroys the life of the guy he tries to befriend. And in the end, The Cable Guy refuses to let up; we leave it just as the cycle of madness and despair is about to begin again. The film represents its reality faithfully, not treating the ridiculous elements of its plot like a throwaway "joke."

I doubt anyone could use the word "romp" to describe The Cable Guy, though that's what pretty much the audience expected to see when they took their seats back in 1996. This blood-lusty What About Bob? got a litany of bad reviews chucked its way upon release, and even today wears an albatross around its neck, the near-universal belief that it's some kind of legendary bomb. In truth, cursory research reveals that The Cable Guy made all its production costs and then some back in its theatrical run (though I don't think those numbers factor in marketing budgets). Everybody thinks The Cable Guy was a massive bomb, and usually treats it as such in conversation.

Comedy's probably the most populist entertainment genre, and comedians the entertainers most wrapped up in public opinion - you go into comedy because you want to make people laugh, and there's little in this world more self-affirming than when your audience laughs at your jokes. Ben Stiller, not just a comedian but the offspring of comedians, has had to live with this version of reality his whole life. Ever since The Cable Guy, a film committed to itself but rejected by its audience, Stiller's repeatedly made the choice, consciously or unconsciously, to make comedies that either treat the challenging of reality as a throwaway gag (Night at the Museum, Zoolander) or that back away from themselves at the end, reminding the audience that they've only been watching a series of unambitious jokes that didn't mean anything or have any pretensions at challenging their expected form or content in any way (Meet the Parents, There's Something About Mary, Mystery Men). Only in a brief flash on an episode of Ricky Gervais' Extras has his former potential reasserted itself.

Even Stiller's most weirdly subversive role in the last decade - White Goodman in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story - gets neutered in the film's closing moments. White's creepily sexual in a way Stiller roles never are, and powerful, both physically and economically. He's a clown, sure, but a more terrifying one than we're used to Stiller inhabiting. Rather than do anything with this character the film's spent most of its runtime building up, Dodgeball returns White to his long-since-outgrown tubby fatass state following his loss in the dodgeball tournament to Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn) and his team of misfits (including Stephen Root, Justin Long, and Stiller's real-life wife Christine Taylor). Stiller spend the closing credits in a fat suit, eating disgusting-looking food and singing Kelis' "Milkshake" while fondling himself. Creepy? Yes. Threatening? Not so much. Subversive? No way.

Tropic Thunder looked like it could've been the film Stiller had been saving up his cultural and industrial credibility to make since the Cable Guy crash. A self-aware, big-budget, bloated war film satire of big-budget, bloated, self-important war films? One starring the recently-resurrected Robert Downey, Jr., the needing-resurrection Jack Black, alongside Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Stiller himself, and Tom Cruise (in a performance of commitment rivaling his to Magnolia's Frank T.J. Mackey)? If ever there appeared an opportunity for Ben Stiller to return to form, to really and fully commit, this was it.

Unfortunately, Tropic Thunder's craziest energy only came in spurts and fits, but when it managed to get its head completely above water, it produced near-transcendent comedy, as with Robert Downey, Jr.'s, performance as Kirk Lazarus, and Lazarus' beyond-Method performance as Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, an African-American sergeant in the Vietnam War. On the other hand, Stiller's choice to cast himself as a burned-out, over-the-hill action film star instead of going with, you know, an actor whose career arc mirrored Tugg Speedman's (man, would I have loved to see Van Damme, Kurt Russell, or hell, The Rock in that role instead) damaged the film immediately, and irreparably. Let's take each part in turn.

Throughout most of the film, Downey fearlessly committed to the joke, imbuing the award-winning Australian actor (who underwent a skin pigmentation alteration procedure in order to play Osiris) with a confidence and magnetism that can only be described as Downey-esque; he even goes so far as to accuse Brandon T. Jackson's Alpa Chino of contributing to the damaged reputation young black men have to bear in modern American society (Alpa's a rapper, you see, and one who trades carefully on his black cultural credibility). Certainly, every character in Tropic Thunder is an overblown mockery of a stereotype, but for Downey's character, parody was a means to an end, a point, not just an end in and of itself.

For a guy who initially balked at the role, over perfectly understandable fears that it'd be interpreted as insensitive or worse, RDJ did some of the best work of his or anybody else's career in Tropic Thunder, at least until the film's closing moments, when Lazarus tears off much of his makeup, admitting (for no useful or rational reason) that he's a steaming bog of insecurity, that he compensates for his feelings of inadequacy by throwing himself into these roles that require him to subvert his own personality. He's sorry, you see, for being the sort of person he doesn't particularly like being. In the end, Tropic Thunder itself betrays Downey's commitment to his character, as the film throws up its hands and begs its audience not to hurt it. It was all in good fun, you see.

Unlike Downey, Stiller cast himself in the safest role possible (safer even than the part he'd originally intended to play, that of Speedman's agent Rick Peck, a part that eventually went to Matthew McConaughey), refusing to bring even an ounce of self-awareness that his fellow stars brought to their parts. Jack Black plays the clown, RDJ the bonkers award-winner, Brandon Jackson the pompous alpha male rapper, Jay Baruchel the awkward new guy, Cruise the power-crazed megalomaniac, and Stiller... well, Stiller makes his cast look into the abyss, but refuses to do so himself. Speedman's easily the least interesting, least important principal in the film, but it didn't have to be that way. The director just needed to cast someone with the appropriate baggage, but instead, he cast himself. That, as my friend Tim's so swiftly summed up, proof that Stiller wasn't ever going to commit with Tropic Thunder.

As with most of Stiller's films, Tropic Thunder uses its last minutes to effectively apologize for itself, performing a variation on Puck's closing speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Clearly, if this approach worked for Shakespeare, I can't begrudge Stiller's modern day appropriation of it, as it works for him, but the fact that a guy who looked poised to produce some significant comedy, the sort that still matters not only five minutes after you leave the theater but years down the line, willfully turned himself and his work into the most innocuous sort of clowning is just plain disheartening. Once, Stiller's art lost the battle with commerce, and as a result, he conceded the entire war. I guess that qualifies as some sort of commitment, doesn't it?

[Of course, it is possible to overcommit, and that's dangerous, too. You don't want to "go full retard," as they say in Tropic Thunder. You can lose sight of the joke entirely when you do that (plenty of South Park episodes, lots of Brian Posehn's standup, The Great Dictator, The Invention of Lying) and alienate the audience worse than you might've otherwise. But, that's probably better left for another piece.]

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