That old saw about academia—the fights are so fierce because the stakes are so low—works just as well for Hollywood. So when New Yorker film critic David Denby attacks Ben Stiller as “the latest, and crudest, version of the urban Jewish male on the make,” then slyly dismisses the hilarious There’s Something About Mary as Stiller’s “first chasing-the-blonde movie,” one hoped there would be a riposte, some good, old-fashioned epistolary bloodsport. And, as if in answer to my prayers, a letter appears in the February 14 issue in defense of Stiller’s honor:

I’ve acted in two hundred and thirty-seven buddy movies and, with that experience, I’ve developed an almost preternatural feel for the beats that any good buddy movie must have. And maybe the most crucial audience-rewarding beat is where one buddy comes to the aid of the other guy to help defeat a villain. Or bully. Or jerk. Someone the audience can really root against. And in Denby I realized excitedly that I had hit the trifecta. How could an audience not be dying for a real Billy Jack moment of reckoning for Denby after he dismisses or diminishes or just plain insults practically everything Stiller had ever worked on? And not letting it rest there, in true bully fashion Denby moves on to take some shots at the way Ben looks and even his Jewishness…

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in 'Zoolander'
Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in Zoolander

The author, of course, is none other than Owen Wilson, the greatest Gentile actor in Hollywood. Not the greatest actor who happens to be a Gentile, but the greatest portrayer of Gentiles, the finest capturer of their widely stereotyped essence. And it is precisely that trait that makes his buddy movies with Ben Stiller—Meet the Parents, Zoolander, Starsky and Hutch, and Meet the Fockers—so delicious.

Denby’s review is quite smart at times. His explanation, for example, of why Bill Murray has emerged a major star and Dan Aykroyd hasn’t is original and dead-on. But in attacking Stiller’s characters, Denby misunderstands what the actor, whose father is Jewish, is trying to accomplish. Perhaps because he has given so much thought to the “Jewish male on the make”—his memoir American Sucker recounts losing his savings day-trading while getting hooked on internet porn—Denby is happy to use that image to unlock the mystery of Stiller’s popularity. But that critical move misses entirely the context in which Stiller works. Stiller is one half of Stiller and Wilson, masters of the smart, hip interethnic rapport, Martin and Lewis for the Tiger Woods age.

The straight man/funny man dynamic is as old as Roman comedy, and the Jewish/Gentile version goes back at least to Dick Van Dyke and Morey Amsterdam—or Burns and Allen. But for Ben Stiller it’s a specialty, one that gets its most obvious workout in Keeping the Faith, directed by Edward Norton. Stiller and Norton play a rabbi and a priest, best friends since childhood, helping each other through the trials of their respective callings. I once heard Stiller on Howard Stern denigrating this movie, which I always thought was underrated and worth seeing again. But, as any good director knows, the straight man makes all the difference. And it must be admitted that, compared with Owen Wilson, Edward Norton is a cut-rate Gentile at best. (For one thing, he reads a bit too Jewish; it’s no surprise that he worked so well in the Woody Allen ensemble comedy Everyone Says I Love You.)

Owen Wilson, on the other hand, is a Pimm’s cup perfectly mixed. First, there’s his voice, a combination of California surfer lilt and Locust Valley lockjaw, an accent that’s relaxed and pompous at the same time; not since James Spader’s sinister baritone in Pretty in Pink has a movie voice so convincingly conveyed class privilege. There is, too, Wilson’s nose: craggy, broken, impossible to miss. Its prominence is, on Wilson, maddeningly perfect, evidence not of his ethnic patrimony but of a boating accident or a lacrosse injury. It’s all so unfair—and the near-boiling resentment that Stiller brings to their interactions shows that he knows it.

Above all, there’s the magnanimity, the egregious sensitivity that the socially secure use when speaking to their inferiors. In Meet the Parents, Stiller’s Greg Focker is forced to spend an afternoon with Wilson’s Kevin Rawley, his fiancée’s ex-boyfriend. Kevin is a wealthy financier by trade, but his avocation is woodworking, and he salvages scrap “from an old seaman’s chapel in Nantucket.” Ever the gracious loser, he has carved—by hand, and from a single piece of wood—his ex and her new beau a wedding canopy; he tells Greg, “It’s an altar—or you might call it a chhhuppah.” Kevin’s effort to pronounce the word correctly is so sincere that Greg cannot think he his being mocked; he can only fume over the one-upmanship.

And that is the humor, and implicit social commentary, that Wilson brings to all his great buddy-movie straight men: Kevin, who returns in Meet the Fockers, Ken Hutchinson in Starsky & Hutch, Hansel McDonald in Zoolander, even, in a way, Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums. They are solicitous, eager to understand the pain of their buddy and to soak up their wisdom while feeling entitled and untroubled, bereft of neurosis, in precisely the way their ethnic counterpart cannot. They are perfectly engineered to make Stiller squirm—not from bigoted condescension, but from too-earnest kindness. When, at the end of Meet the Fockers, we learn that Kevin has spent a year on a kibbutz and is now ready to perform a quasi-Jewish wedding ceremony, it becomes clear that Owen Wilson has created the ultimate film philo-Semite—a character every bit as funny as he is, in another light, unnerving.

Denby’s analysis is, above all, an attempt to explain the amazing popularity of Ben Stiller, who is, he argues, “like a kid acting in a show at summer camp, cutting up for his relatives and friends.” How could a second-rate comic be a first-rate box office draw? The answer is not so difficult; the evidence is right there, in Denby’s short piece. Stiller has had some box office disappointments—Denby mentions Permanent Midnight and The Cable Guy, but kindly ignores bombs like Mystery Men; those are, as a rule, movies without Owen Wilson or another suitable foil. In other words, Stiller is a ham in search of a straight man; being occasionally mismatched is an occupational hazard. Of course, some of his characters are one-dimensional—that’s the nature of the buddy comedy. And Owen Wilson’s combination of cad, lacrosse goalie, and mensch is the best buddy Stiller’s characters could ever want.