Ben Stiller in Greenberg
Few in Hollywood can perform with consistency on both sides of the camera the way Ben Stiller can.
If Zoolander didn’t establish that, Tropic Thunder certainly confirmed Stiller’s dual talent, underscored by Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting-actor Oscar nomination for his obsessed Tropic Thunder thespian.
Besides being multi-faceted, the 44-year-old is also bankable, which is another rare commodity. Stiller movies have earned more than $1.5 billion US world wide.
That includes the aforementioned Tropic Thunder, and a few studio comedy franchises, most notably, the Meet the Parents series and Night at the Museum flicks.
From time to time, Stiller wades into the more tempered humour pool to challenge himself in emoting territory removed from his more exaggerated comedy comfort zone.
That would be the case in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, which opened in select theatres last Friday.
In the movie, Stiller plays the title character, a neurotic New York underachiever who suffers a breakdown. After treatment, he hangs out at this brother’s L.A. home, ostensibly house-sitting while the family goes on an exotic vacation.
After boredom sets in, Greenberg tries to re-connect with some old rock ‘n’ roll band mates, including Ivan (Rhys Ifans), who seems to have as many issues as his former sidekick.As they struggle with their past and their presents together, Greenberg develops a new relationship with his brother’s just-out-of-college assistant (Greta Gerwig), who seems to be almost as lost as Greenberg.
To tell you that Baumbach (who co-wrote Greenberg with wife Jennifer Jason Leigh) previously put together Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and The Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, is to explain Greenberg, the movie.
It falls somewhere into that milieu, mixing comedy with drama as awkwardly as the characters deal with their individual shortcomings. And that was exactly the challenge Stiller decided he needed.
“I really love Noah’s movies, and would have done anything he sent over to me,” says Stiller. “He had written such a layered character and movie, and it was intriguing, and not the kind of material I get that often.”
Originally, Baumbach had written the part for a younger actor, but re-wrote the role when Stiller showed interest in it.
With the screenplay adjustment, the actor embraced his Greenberg persona as defined by Baumbach’s re-modelling. So Stiller jumped in with both feet, defining a cynic who’s apathetic and doesn’t care.
“Greenberg’s trying to get through life, because things haven’t really worked out the way he wanted them to,” notes Stiller.
Opportunities have passed him by, as the film so deftly underscores, “but he tries to rationalize his lack of momentum” with sarcasm and a temper. “He’s probably too smart for his own good,” agrees Stiller.
“But everybody struggles with their own sense of themselves,” he adds. “Playing this guy gave me a real appreciation for what I have, because it’s very easy to focus on what you don’t have.”
Still, he says he’s fortunate his director is just plain “articulate” in showing specific details of all the characters.
“It’s really interesting how people react to Greenberg,” reports Stiller. “All the reactions seem to be very visceral; audiences are moved by it or it makes them uncomfortable.”
He’s also thrilled to work with the dog in Greenberg, who had previously played Delgado in Beverly Hills Chihuahua. “I was familiar with his work, because I have kids,” he says. “So there was a respect.”
Next up for Stiller is a return to the mainstream with Meet the Little Fockers, which opens next Christmas. In it, Stiller’s frazzled husband copes, ironically, with kids.
“It was great to re-connect with Robert De Niro,” the actor says. “It’s always exciting to be around him. He understands his persona, and has an amazing sense of humour.”
Meanwhile, Stiller is in the early stages of developing a sequel to Zoolander as writer and director. “We are working on a script right now, so the idea is to have something to shoot next year,” Stiller says.
And, of course, after Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian earned a whopping $413 million US worldwide last spring, another Night seems inevitable.
Another Tropic Thunder flick doesn’t seem so likely, however.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “That was a one-off thing that took us nine years from beginning to end.”
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