Ben Stiller: Hollywood’s box office banker

RT film editor Andrew Collins says the comedy actor is still underrated

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Ben Stiller, a man whose fame was sealed by an excruciating zipper accident, has made over 50 films, a handful of which he not only starred in, but variously wrote, directed and/or produced, notably Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. 

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In total, his film tally has grossed over $2.5 billion at the US box office alone, which works out at an average of around $60 million per film. This puts Stiller, who only turns 46 in November, in Hollywood’s top ten grossing comedy performers of all-time, along with Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and John Cleese.

Success

His next film, a big-budget, New York-set crime caper, Tower Heist (in cinemas on Wednesday 2 November) looks set to increase that staggering total by at least another $100 million. In it, he co-stars with the aforementioned Murphy, but there s no doubting who’s the lead – just look at the poster, observe the triangular arrangement of the ensemble cast and ask: who’s at the apex?

So how did he get to this point? American network television churns out talented comic performers on a weekly basis, not least through boot-camp sketch shows like Saturday Night Live. But only a few of them make the transition to bankable movie star. 

Stiller, whose early short films had led to a truncated stint on SNL as writer and “featured performer”, was subsequently offered his own show – imaginatively titled The Ben Stiller Show – by MTV in 1992. This only ran for one season, but it proved just the train set this wildly prolific spoof merchant needed to flex his muscles. Many of his early satirical targets were popular movies and TV shows, such as Star Trek, The Munsters and the work of Tom Cruise. What shines through from his early work is pop-cultural affection. His comedy is not cruel.

There’s Something about Mary

He directed low-budget romantic comedy Reality Bites and the Jim Carrey vehicle The Cable Guy, appearing in both, but it was the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 gross-out milestone There’s Something about Mary that minted him as a leading man – in particular the scene where, as a fumbling teen, he suffers a fly malfunction in the bathroom of a potential girlfriend’s parents before prom night. For that, he earned our undying sympathy.

Playing the lovable klutz has served him well, whether suffering the indignities meted out by the Meet the Parents franchise or saving the day in Night at the Museum and its sequel. And he successfully changed gear for the more esoteric and melancholy The Royal Tenenbaums – where, again, he humbly joined a large ensemble – and mainstream romantic comedy Along Came Polly. Some will always love his over-the-top male model in Zoolander; I like to see him toning it right down in something with indie credentials like last year’s Greenberg.

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Stiller will gurn if you let him – he was pretty silly as an action hero in Tropic Thunder, a bigbudget dream version of his old TV sketches – but he’s capable of much more subtlety, and that’s why he’s better than Eddie Murphy.