David Schwartz of the Museum of the Moving Image has a thoughtful essay on the showbiz satires and family psychodramas of Ben Stiller to accompany the museum’s salute at their annual gala last week.
It has often been said that show business is in Ben Stiller’s genes. If that’s true, then so is a healthy–and seemingly neurotic–disdain for Hollywood glitz. Indeed, the 42-year-old star’s profound and playful understanding of the way that movies and TV shows can be both alluring and alienating is at the heart of his prolific body of work….
So what is behind this constant impulse to satirize show business, to make fun of the industry that provides Stiller’s livelihood? The answer, beyond the surface of the sheer entertainment value of his movies (and Stiller’s films have earned nearly two billion box-office dollars) is that he sees show business as the perfect arena in which to explore, in amplified form, many of the neuroses of modern life. In show business, such foibles as vanity, insecurity, pretension, ego inflation, and feelings of inadequacy are all on display in heightened, occasionally ridiculous form. Our laughter at Stiller’s characters usually comes along with a bracing dose of self-recognition. This is because the public spectacle of show business becomes the ideal forum for an intimate exploration of the most basic psychodramas.
Schwartz notes that Stiller delivers a real performance, even in the broadest comedies, and has been successful in a remarkable range of roles and genres. He concludes that Stiller “has been able to find success in Hollywood while also turning a mirror on it. He lets us laugh knowingly at show business, but he also reveals that show business is a reflection of both our dreams and our imperfections.”