When it first came out in 1992, The Ben Stiller Show was like nothing else on TV, at least to this teenager. A wallow in Hollywood detritus and a loving deconstruction of pop idioms, The Ben Stiller Show was nuanced, knowing, and unapologetically geeky—which explains why it lasted all of 12 episodes. Yet the largely unseen series remains the most unadulterated product of Stiller’s comic imagination, a tonic to the numbing succession of slow-burn-nebbish roles that have come to define him. Like Albert Brooks, whom Stiller has cited as a big influence, Stiller presumes his audience’s pop literacy. He has shown a particular gift for spoofing the Hollywood hard sell—the best sketches and gags in Stiller’s shows and movies have been in the form of music videos, movie trailers, commercials, and biographical montages. His target has always been the entertainment industrial complex—its excesses, its fatuousness—and our unhealthy fixation with it.
Yet for all Stiller’s talent, his movies have never strayed far from the disappointing middle. After four directorial efforts, Stiller has yet to make a wholly satisfying picture. To be sure, there have been glimmers of intelligence and inspiration in his past films: the specter of derangement in The Cable Guy, the hilarious send-ups of celeb culture in Zoolander. (Reality Bites, his first movie, just plain bit.) But funny or incisive they may be in parts, not one can be called an unqualified success.
Nor can his latest film, Tropic Thunder. Entertaining enough and yet fatally compromised, it’s Stiller’s best movie, for whatever that’s worth—and probably the starkest reminder of the distance between his early promise and his current careerist track. Click here to read the rest of Elbert Ventura’s review of Tropic Thunder.