Monday, February 23, 2009

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is a Hollywood movie in pretty much every sense of the word. It's made by Hollywood about Hollywood, and pretty much every single actor in Hollywood is either in it or is made fun of in it (sometimes both).

It's a parody movie and a parody of a movie. It stars actors whose characters are the sort of actors who do things the way the actors who portray the characters would do things. If you look at it the right way, TT is a bit like that M.C. Escher painting with all the stairwells leading everywhere and nowhere at once.

Not that it's even a bit confusing. Tropic Thunder tells a story that's been told many times before: The story of performers being forced to really do the thing they only pretend to do. (See, for example, Three Amigos or A Bug's Life.) In this case, the performers are actors in a war movie who then must become reasonable facsimiles of real soldiers in order to save one of their own.

The characters in the film are types, absolutely, but they're types with such readily recalled real-life analogues that they seem entirely real. Ben Stiller (who also directed) is Tugg Speedman, a once bankable action star who is seeing his clout plummeting (Stephen Seagal? Tom Cruise?). Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor known for his method acting and for his multiple Oscar wins (some combination of Russel Crowe and Daniel-Day Lewis?). Jack Black is the beloved and belittled (and drug-addicted) star of films such as Fatties: Fart 2--in which he plays every character in a fat and flatulent family (not even a veiled reference to Eddie Murphy). These three are joined by Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino--a rapper most known for hawking a soft drink called "Booty Sweat"--and Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, the first-time actor who happens to be the only one doing things as the director intends.

The plot gets legs when the director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), gets reamed out by producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise in a lauded cameo) for blowing several million dollars on an expensive, explosive shot in which none of the actors were doing what they needed to do. At his wit's end, Cockburn takes the advice of writer and war veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who tells him that the actors need to experience some real combat in order to be able to properly make this film.

Of course, as is the case with films of this sort, the actors gradually realize that what was once make-believe has become real, and--again, according to the formula--they rise to the occassion.

But, as is the case is in comedies, the plot is only there as delivery vehicle for jokes. And the jokes here do pretty well on average. As with any parody, it occassionally falls into the pattern trailblazed by Family Guy (on the good side) and Not Another Date Disaster Epic Movie (on the evil side): merely substituting reference (and, sometimes, crudeness) for comedy. But Tropic Thunder does deliver some solid comedy, and some of its best work is very referential. Take, for example, Lazarus' speech to Speedman, who is just coming off an ill-advised and much-derided role in which he plays a retarded character called Simple Jack:

Lazarus: Everybody knows you never go full retard.
Speedman: What do you mean?
Lazarus: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho'. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump. Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, "Being There." Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed..."

Tropic Thunder
 is the second movie that Ben Stiller has directed, and already some themes are beginning to emerge. He enjoys poking fun at those who are lauded for superficial reasons, despite being a bit empty inside -- yet he also makes those characters his heroes. He loves employing the well-timed cameo (Tom Cruise here, David Bowie in Zoolander). He loves his stupid humor, but he's proven capable of employing it in some smart ways.

And like Zoolander, Tropic Thunder is pretty good. But only pretty good. It delivers enough laughs in enough ways that you don't feel as though your two hours were wasted. But it doesn't offer a character memorable enough or a vision transformative enough to push the film from successful to excellent. Tropic Thunder is a bit more sophisticated than Zoolander, but--in receiving an 8--it still can't crack that double-digit barrier.


Particle Man said...

once again, Ben Stiller proves that he's just not my kind of comedian. he's just a little too obvious, too ham-fisted, too childish to elicit more than a chuckle-turned-to-groan from me. he has some very funny moments in Tropic Thunder, but i just thought he had too many jokes that he milked way too much. for example, the gag where Les Grossman turns on the stereo to a gangsta rap jam and does some trademark white boy dancing. it was funny once, it was tiresome twice, and it was violence-inducing three times, and it would have been better if those three instances had not been within 4 minutes of each other. the gag with the land mine and the disembodied head was another instance where the joke ran about 600 miles when it needed to go only about 40 feet. it makes me wonder if Stiller only had a certain number of jokes, and was frantically trying to make them fill 2 hours. then there was the "Simple Jack" thing, which had me going, "well, this is kinda funny, but i feel like a horrible person for thinking so." while Stiller has a flair for making comedy out of unfortunate things, but it doesn't always work, and often has the opposite effect. you're sometimes left saying, "wait a sec, that wasn't funny! so why am i laughing?"

also, i'm surprised, DW, that you didn't even mention Robert Downey Jr. brilliantly comedic performance. he was the one part of this film which hit the nail right on the head. Downey, in an instance of beautiful self-parody, was completely sold out to his role, in the same way that Lazarus was sold out to his. it was exactly the kind of thing that Oscar nominations (but not Oscar wins) are truly made of.

Moshe Reuveni said...

I agree with PM on the DJ argument: Downey Jr's performance in Tropic Thunder was outstanding (so much so it deserves this otherwise pointless comment).

Your Racist Friend said...

I thought this movie was hilarious. I think you're being a bit harsh comparing it to all those Friedberg/Seltzer POSs. I wouldn't even deem to call them "entertainment", let alone art. Simple Jack is a work of genius, and I don't think there's anything mean about that bit at all.

Your Racist Friend said...

And yeah, Robert Downey, Jr. OWNED this summer.

Dr. Worm said...

Piece by piece:

1. I mostly agree with you, PM; I think Stiller's movies are watchable but uninspired. The two bits you mentioned (Grossman and the gross head) were milked far too hard.

2. Simple Jack is funny--and appropriately so--because it's not making fun of retarded people, it's making fun of actors who portray retarded people to win awards.

3. I'll defend my Friedberg/Selzer (Not Another Epic Disaster Date Movie) comparison by noting that it's a comparison of kind, not of quality. I was just pointing out the reference-as-humor vehicle, though obviously Stiller and Family Guy are much more skilled drivers of the vehicle than Friedberg/Selzer.

4. And I'll break from public opinion a bit with the Downey Jr. assessment. I think what people are calling a phenomenal acting performance is merely a very good acting performance coupled with very good make-up work. I though he did a very nice job, but I think all this adulation might be just a smidge overblown.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Re "what people are calling a phenomenal acting performance is merely a very good acting performance coupled with very good make-up work":
Isn't that the normal case? As in Theron's Monster, for example?
I was taken by Downey Jr's ability to switch from one character to the other so quickly. Regardless, as My Racist Friend suggests, it's also to do with what Downey Jr managed to achieve in the short period since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Need I mention Zodiac?

CmdLuke said...

sorry PM, but Simple Jack had me rolling in the isle. especially when he had to perform it live.

jbodster said...

I'm with YRF and CmdLuke- I LOVED the movie and Simple Jack had me in tears as did most of Ben Stiller's performance.