Ben Stiller in 'Greenberg,' and the pleasures of men behaving badly

greenbergImage Credit: Wilson WebbSometimes the sweetest thing a famous actor can do for his career is play a sourpuss. That’s my theory, anyway, presented in conjunction with the release of Noah Baumbach’s bracingly dyspeptic psychological tragicomedy Greenberg. In this case, Ben Stiller does the honors with the title role, playing a man in midlife who is incapable — despite his best efforts at sustaining a low-stress mellowness — of not leaving his personal stink mark of dissatisfaction on everyone in his wake. But I don’t want to make the movie sound like (too much of) a downer, because it’s not — not with Stiller embracing Roger Greenberg’s prickly nature so earnestly. True, Stiller has tailored a successful career for himself playing guys so full of themselves that they’re hilarious in great, self-absorbed-peacock stuff like Zoolander and Tropic Thunder (one of my big-time favorites). But Greenberg strips Stiller of the familiar, air-quote irony with which he usually builds his outrageous characters. And in his energetic seriousness, the actor shows new dramatic depth.

Same thing goes for Adam Sandler, a popular, characteristically lovable funny guy whose big performance breakthrough into unsweetened territory in Paul Thomas Anderson’s jolt-to-the-system “romantic comedy” Punch-Drunk Love led to the fascinating, risky, complex projects he has taken on since, including Anger Management and Funny People. Then there’s Tom Cruise, who winked smartly at his own fame with excellent SOB roles in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder. And George Clooney who, in Up In the Air, found just the right way to mess with his own suave movie-star persona by playing a character with serious (rather than cartoony) deficiencies of soul.

Meanwhile, here’s a complementary theory to go along with my theme:  While “nice” male actors improve their standing by playing men who are the bitter opposite of nice, “nice” female actors enhance their cred by playing women who aren’t as pretty as the actresses playing them. Or who are at least dumpier. At one far extreme, there’s Charlize Theron in Monster; closer to home there’s, yes, Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl.

Hit me with your own best example  to bolster — or disprove — my brilliant thesis.

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  • Sara

    tropic thunder was completely vile. that’s all i got.

  • TheObserver

    Anne Hathaway in ‘Brokeback Mountain’. I instantly forgot she had been in the princess diaries after the backseat car sex scene with Jake Gyllenhall

    • Lisa Schwarzbaum

      Great example! I have such a vivid memory of her sad, chipped nail polish and smeared lipstick.

  • Monty

    You mentioned Adam Sandler, but left off his performance in “Reign over Me” in which he plays a post 9/11 widower. His outbursts were very vivid and alarming, a complete deviation from even his serious comedies like Funny People.

  • Leigh

    I also thought of Anne Hathaway, except I think of her role as Kim in ‘Rachel Getting Married’. I thought she was great even though her character was so self-involved.

    • GGG

      Cheers! She was fabulous in that film.

  • Kevin Smith

    Making my rounds. Saw that another EW writer is hating on a celebrity for the f * * k of it. Lisa is the same critic that bashed Jersey Girl because I dared to send out a press release giving a heads up about the flick. What’s next? Beating up grade schoolers for handing out programs to their school play? I gotta say that every day I hate film theory & film students & critics more & more. Where is the fun in movies?” Ma’am sometimes, it’s important to turn off the chatter. Film fandom’s become a nasty bloodsport where cartoonishly rooting for failure gets the hit count up on the ol’ brand-new blog. And if a schmuck like me pays you some attention, score! MORE EYES, MEANS MORE ADVERT $$$. But when you pull your eye away from the microscope, you can see that s h* * t you’re studying so closely is, in reality, tiny as f * * k. You wanna enjoy movies again? Stop reading about them & just go to the movies. It’s improved film/movie appreciation immensely for me. Seriously: so many critics lined-up to pull a sad & embarrassing train on CopOut like it was Jennifer Jason Leigh in LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN. Watching them beat the s * * t out of it was sad. Like, it’s called “CopOut”; that sound like a very ambitious title to you? You REALLY wanna s**t in the mouth of a flick that so OBVIOUSLY strived for nothing more than laughs. Was it called “Schindler’s Cop Out”? Writing a nasty eview for CopOut is akin to bullying a retarded kid who was getting a couple chuckles from the normies by singing AFTERNOON DELIGHT. Suddenly, bully-dudes are doing the bad impression of him, using the “retard” voice. The crowd shifts uncomfortably. And you may impress a couple of low IQ-ers who’re like “Yeah, man! Way to destroy that singing retard!” But, really? All you’ve done is make fun of something that wasn’t doing you any harm and wanted only to give some cats a some fun laughs. It was just ridiculous to watch. That was it for me. Realized whole system’s upside down: so we let a bunch of people see it for free & they s * * t all over it? Meanwhile, people who’d REALLY like to see the flick for free are made to pay? Bulls**t: from now on, any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: you wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week. Like, why am I giving an arbitrary 500 people power over what I do at all, let alone for free? Next flick, I’d rather pick 500 randoms from Twitter feed & let THEM see it for free in advance, then post THEIR opinions, good AND bad. Same difference. Why’s their opinion more valid? It’s a backwards system. People are free to talk s**t about ANY of my flicks, so long as they paid to see it. F * * k this AnimalFarm b u l l s * * t.

    • Michael H.

      What does this have to do with the stated topic?

    • matt

      Hey Kevin, I like your films and all but you shouldn’t DRINK and BLOG. Weed + blog = probably a bad thing too.

      • MultiPass

        Seriously, dude… Your diet must be killing you or you are off your meds. Either way that is one hilariously unhinged and inarticulate rant.

        But if you ARE Kevin Smith, you take yourself wayyyyy to f * * cking seriously. All y’all are just in the goddamn film business. A crass, immoral, freeloading bunch of narcissistic airheads and weasels. you don’t make art, it’s a commodity. And you’re not saving anyone’s life or making the world a better place, you’re just crowding it with noise to make a buck. Get over yourself.

    • donkeytits

      i think this is someone having a laugh. that’s a mishmash of recent rants i’ve heard smith toss out. then again, maybe he’s cutting and pasting again. but genuinely, there are several quotes in there that i’ve read on his blog and twitter feed recently.

  • Randi

    Three different times I’ve seen Nicole Kidman taken down from Ms. Prim and Proper to farm hand with dirty clothes and a smeared face and she does it pretty well. Far and Away, Cold Mountain and Australia. She makes you believe she’s really hating it!

    • Ceballos

      How about the ultimate example of Kidman playing someone not as pretty as her – I’m talking about the famous fake nose in “The Hours” that made her unrecognizable and won her an Oscar.

  • Laudan

    When Christian Bale waltzed into Batman Begins and made the franchise relevant again- it was hard to recognize him as the tormented and sickly soul that he was in The Machinist.

  • matt

    The only thing I can watch Jim Carrey in: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He came to mind as soon as I saw this article.

    • wakeforce

      Carrey was excellent in the small tv movie, Doing Time on Maple
      Drive, a serious film. Available from netflix.

  • springs

    Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary comes to mind.

  • Ceballos

    The idea of a “nice” actor tapping his dark side or a pretty actress uglifying herself is nothing new. In fact, it’s been a sure bet for Oscar glory over the past decade.

    I give you Denzel Washington in “Training Day” and Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball”.

    • Will

      Denzel Washington is a notorious jerk in real life so I don’t know if that counts

      • Ceballos

        I’ve heard the same thing about Denzel. However, I was referring more to his on-screen persona as a nice guy/hero.

  • Daria

    I don’t think Charlize Theron was trying to do it thinking about her image. She was not well known. She just saw it as a great role to do. It’s not her fault that she’s so beautiful that people focus on the transformation so much. The acting was deep because she connected with the tragedy having had her own tragedy in her personal life.

    It’s really insulting how everytime a woman does a transformative role people look at it as a stunt or image thing. When men do transformative work like Sean Penn or Daniel Day Lewis the focus is more on the great acting.

  • MultiPass

    Lisa, how about Robin Williams performance in One Hour Photo? I still think of him as cloying or occasionally sweetly entertaining due to his 3 million carbon copy roles… Well, OHP didn’t change his career much. But damn! Soooooo creepy. Kinda freaked me out.

    • kwoww

      Or Williams in a guest role in Law and Order: SVU. Definitely a creepy role for him.

  • Jackie

    Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show” and “Eternal Sunshine”; Adam Sandler in “Spanglish”; Sandra Bullock in “28 Days”…

    • Jackie

      Oh, almost forgot! Will Ferrell in “Stranger than Fiction” :)

  • Anthony

    Will Ferrell Stranger than Fiction.

  • danin

    Anne Hathaway- Rachel Getting Married

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