- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Never mind Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman or even Barbra Streisand plastered all over the “Meet the Fockers” ads. The true star of “Fockers” — which has earned $162.4 million and counting in just two weeks — is Gaylord Focker himself, Ben Stiller.

Don’t believe us? Look at the year he just wrapped. His modestly funny “Along Came Polly” earned nearly $90 million, based partially on a hilarious trailer in which Mr. Stiller’s face smushes up against the chest of a hirsute b-baller on the court.

The actor’s spoof of the ‘70s cop show “Starsky & Hutch” — source material about which today’s teens don’t have a clue — earned roughly the same coin.

Then came “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” which was the summer’s true sleeper.

Solid performers, all.

Now comes “The Fockers,” with its glittery cast of Oscar winners tripping over each other to embarrass themselves. Standing tall amid the wreckage is Mr. Stiller, whose turn as the male nurse with the unfortunate name steadies the rickety vehicle.

Watching Miss Streisand straddle Mr. De Niro in a massage-session sequence in “Fockers” isn’t funny. Catching Mr. Stiller wince when he accidentally smashes his rental car’s window sure is.

Not bad for the son of the old-school comedy duo Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, who alone or together never rose to their offspring’s heights.

It takes more than simply appearing in a slew of films to earn boffo box office. Just compare Mr. Stiller’s 2004 to the year for Jude Law, the beyond-handsome bloke who popped up in six movies within a few months alone at year’s end. The closest Mr. Law came to a hit is the still-running “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and the actor serves merely as the film’s narrator.

Mr. Stiller’s 2004 wasn’t a royal flush. He did star in the abominable “Envy,” but the film had been languishing on the shelf, so its taint is minimal.

The comic actor’s supposed breakout gig came more than a decade ago in his 1990 self-titled sketch show on Fox. Too bad we didn’t appreciate it in time to stave off the executioner’s ax.

It took the Farrelly brother’s gleefully raw “There’s Something About Mary” (1998) to give him mass exposure.

He has spent the intervening years living both up and down to expectations.

He explored his dark side in 1998’s “Permanent Midnight” as a burned-out TV scribe, then flopped with the comic-book caper “Mystery Men” (1999).

The following year, he gave us “Meet the Parents,” finding a perfect comic foil in Mr. De Niro. “The Goodfellas” icon, in turn, reinvented himself with Mr. Stiller as his straight-man muse.

Since then, Mr. Stiller has balanced his commercial instincts (2001’s “Zoolander”) with a hankering for indie gold (2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”).

His comic persona hasn’t changed much from film to film. He’s the beaten-down shlub who at any moment could blow his top over some minor injustice.

It helps that the actor remains handsome without approaching Brad Pitt’s ideal masculinity, nebbishy minus Woody Allen’s gawky postures.

Posting a year like Mr. Stiller has gives an actor plenty of room to maneuver in Hollywood, and we’ll have to wait and see what the actor does with his clout.

Our first suggestion is avoiding a “Fockers” trilogy. Even a likable rascal like Mr. Stiller can’t survive another round of male nurse jokes and Focker puns.

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