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By Adrienne Martini

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Say it with me now: Ben Stiller, Ben Stiller, Ben Stiller. While the chatter about his performances has always been strong, widespread commercial audiences have avoided his work in droves. The buzz coalesced in 1998, and Joe Consumer finally embraced Stiller, flocking to the Farrelly brother's smash There's Something About Mary. But there are some smaller films out there that capture what he built this new success on: a willingness to try just about anything to get a solid laugh.

In Zero Effect (1998, R) Stiller plays Steve Arlo, assistant to the world's most private private dick. Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, the aforementioned P.I., deserves more acting kudos than he usually gets. In his off-time, Zero is a complete neurotic, unable to complete the most basic of tasks without Arlo's help, which puts a serious crimp in Arlo's budding relationship with Angela Featherstone (who may be a great actress; we never really see enough of her skills to find out.) Zero Effect is full of great one-liners, but never quite figures out what it wants to be. Stiller plays it as a comedy, Pullman as a quirky love story; director Jake Kasdan can't pull the whole thing together by the time the credits roll.

Unlike Zero Effect, David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster (1996, R) knows exactly what it is—a fierce comedy that, like Mary, will leap over the good taste line to set up a killer joke. Of course, this shouldn't be much of a surprise given Russell's first big screener Spanking the Monkey, dwelled on such titillating topics as masturbation and incest with darkly comic results. Flirting shows that Russell's writing has matured—he chooses to tell a fairly straightforward looking-for-identity story without resorting to tickling taboos just for effect. Stiller's performance is simultaneously awkward and suave, capturing the emotional maelstrom that adopted child Mel goes through on his cross-country search for his birth parents. Patricia Arquette and Téa Leoni (who is surprisingly good) get swept along for the ride. Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, and Lily Tomlin milk their roles for every last drop of black humor. It's gratifying to see these actors cut loose in some truly outrageous parts, yet the film as a whole gets tedious by the final reel. When everything is larger than life, it slowly becomes hard to care about these exploded situations.

The same can be said of Reality Bites (1994, PG-13). While it was a strong directorial debut for Stiller, the script left most of the audience in the cold with its myopic and histrionic focus on the slacker sub-set of Generation X. Janeane Garofalo gave a break-out performance as Winona Ryder's slutty best friend, and the much-maligned Ethan Hawke was incredibly believable as a tortured musician.

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