In a notorious 2005 essay on Ben Stiller, New Yorker critic David Denby described the actor as "the latest, and crudest, version of the urban Jewish male on the make," citing Woody Allen and Richard Dreyfus as antecedents. With a sort of Pyrrhic determination to ruin his remaining credibility, he goes on to disparage Stiller's facial features, his comedian parents and comes within a whisker of saying outright that Jews shouldn't pursue blond women. He's right about one thing: We do like Ben Stiller to be neurotic and uncomfortable in his comedy, whether that's a Jewish thing or not. A lot of his comedy derives from painful attempts to fit in—at parties, with his WASP-y in-laws, with the cool crowd. There's that great scene in Meet the Parents where Focker is trying to act cool with his girlfriend's teenage brother, and the best he can muster is a hilariously irrelevant "Noooo doubt" that only shows how fossilized in some possibly imagined personal cool phase his idea of cool really is.
We all know the awkwardness of fumbling through a "cool" handshake and mispronouncing shibboleths in cool company, if not getting caught in a lie about milking a cat. This is what makes Stiller so eminently relatable as a comic actor: We can see our best intentions and our most pathetic tendencies in his weaselly efforts to join the crowd, to be liked, in his stereotypical wimpiness, his disseminating and occasional outright cowardice.
Or at least we men can, and the warier among us sometimes feel as though Stiller, like Jud Apatow, is selling the secrets of men to the highest bidder. Ever since There's Something About Mary, there's been a New Male Realism to comedy dialogue, and one fears that giving away too many secrets of men will hasten our downfall by supplying the very blueprints for the female siege and investiture of our last few male outposts.
Which, one hastens to add, get fewer all the time as one drifts farther from the male brorbit of one's twenties and into the universe of fatherhood, with ever less free time and ever more responsibility. This adds a certain harsh taste of the real to Stiller's recent modern-dad roles, in which his portrayal of the Evolved Father cowering on the shrinking preserve of his former freedom resonates with the suppressed feelings all fathers surely have, whether they admit it or not, of feeling locked in—trapped. Not long ago, a (married, Swedish) friend of mine suggested that Swedish women, having domesticated Swedish men so successfully, are tired of them and craving the old excitement of male chauvinism. Looking around at my old bandmates and drinking buddies now slung with diaper bags and baby carriers, I sometimes fear for America as well.
When I say outposts of maledom, though, I'm not talking about half-assed parenting, nor do I mean exclusive fraternities and good-ol-boy networks. I'm talking about certain attitudes and slumbering archetypes and, um, uh, classified information that Stiller and Apatow exploit to the hilt for comedy: the secrets of men. Stiller's wank-in-the-bank maneuver before his date with Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary represents an especially shocking onscreen breach of the Sixth Brommandment: "Thou shalt not strippeth male sexuality of its mystery nor admitteth of premature ejaculation."
But it all contributes to a likeably annoying, if sometimes overly ingratiating, but also gently self-deprecating comic presence. In his more serious roles, though—and he's got a juicy one in Greenberg, directed by Noah Baumbach—it's hard to get past Stiller's hyper self-awareness. You simply think, "So that's what he acts like when he's trying not to be himself." And sometimes the material lets him down, even when it's written by longtime friends and collaborators. The Royal Tenenbaums had Stiller trapped between comedy and drama, and Wes Anderson-style drama to boot, which is to say drama with nothing really at stake. Nowhere to go: pacing in his cage like Rilke's panther in a red tracksuit.
Frequent collaborators Baumbach and Anderson have a lot in common, namely a fixation on hyper-articulate but terminally self-absorbed characters. But they differ decisively on the matter of sex. In Anderson's rarefied world sex exists only in dialogue, where some misapprehension about it is generally presented as the crudest evidence of intellectual precociousness matched by lack of adult experience in characters like Rushmore's Max Fisher. Among Baumbach's movies sex is sudden and graphic, but at the same time clumsy, depressing and equally irrelevant.
In Greenberg, Stiller plays an irritable house-sitter with unresolvable feelings for his brother's personal assistant (a wonderful Greta Gerwig). There's more to the movie than that, but not much: Greenberg is almost entirely character-driven, and for once it's the few moments of broad humor instead of calculated seriousness that seem tacked-on. The scene where Stiller's Greenberg snorts cocaine with a roomful of young people like his future brother-in-law in Meet the Parents is funny, but having discovered this new Stiller—and his performance in Greenberg is a quiet sort of revelation—we find ourselves wishing the old one would take the old schtick elsewhere.
Greenberg continues at the Wilma Theatre.