Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)


Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder owes so much to so many different films that have come before it, one might suspect it of being either too doctrinaire in its veneration of those past cinematic explorations of the behind-the-scenes workings of the nightmare factory of Hollywood, whether they be Vincent Minelli's The Bad and the Beautiful or Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife or Blake Edwards' S.O.B., or too blithely irreverent in its sending-up of war epics to properly absorb its own constructed conspectus of features of that kind. What Stiller has done, and succeeded tremendously at, is making a film that aims directly at all of the craziness that influences the actors of Tinseltown. Tropic Thunder encapsulates all of the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of actors, whether they be of limited talent, attached to a certain genre of movies, or the haughty thespians who approach the art of their craft with statements of philosophical gravity and self-importance, though typically amounting to little more than the musings and recommendations of your latest fortune cookie.

Filling the roles of the former type, Stiller portrays fading action star Tugg Speedman, whose action franchise has run out of gas after being diluted with more and more feckless and wasteful sequels after one or two worthwhile entries (think of the Alien franchise as just one example of a long-ago sensational saga reduced to one instance of being watered down after another) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a base comedian enjoying success with his abysmal Fatties comedy series. Speedman's recent adventure in the land of Oscar-bait pretentiousness, a risible drama about a mentally retarded farm boy called Simple Jack, received a chorus of jeers from critics and most likely received numerous Raspberries. Looking for something more amenable to his physicality, Speedman thinks the film Tropic Thunder is his best bet, based on the book of Vietnam War hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). Portnoy wants to prove he can play something other than a man whose success is derived from his fatty flatulence franchise.

Filling the role of the second type, Robert Downey, Jr. plays the volatile Australian multi-Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, with steely blue eyes and blonde hair, who has himself physically transformed through a chemical skin treatment so he can play a black sergeant charged with rescuing Tayback. Downey, Jr. is adept at portraying risk-taking mavericks and skewering pretense. Therefore his dual role as actor and actor-as-character could not be better suited for the sardonic and flippantly free-wheeling star of Zodiac and this summer's opening tent-pole salvo, Iron Man. (A certain line seems to stand as a breaking of character on two different levels, as Lazarus, when called upon realizing just who he is, states, still vocally in character, “I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as the other dude!”) Lazarus's off-screen antics are modeled on Russell Crowe's bad-boy behavior. His remarks about the intricacies of acting recall the high-minded phraseology of Marlon Brando and other highly regarded actors who have spoken of the vocation in radiantly beneficent and almost pious altruism.

For approximately a year now, speculative theories about the failures of the war films that have been released have occupied many Hollywood spectators' thoughts. Do people not want to see films about the Iraq War? Is this limited to American moviegoers? If the main prohibitive has to do with the Iraq War, why did a film about World War II released in 2006 like Flags of Our Fathers perform so poorly? Tropic Thunder does not confront the question of the Iraq War's souring of the war genre, and films about terrorism, with the public, but it does make an exceptionally intelligent point within its first minutes. A sequence that pays satirical but almost loving homage to iconic and modern war films such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon makes a point easily read by people most responsive to the biting wit of satire. Anything ripe for satirical lampooning or parodying must be on some level adrift or at least construed as an institution, trend (artistic or otherwise) or way of thought that has been found wanting or at the very least exhausted. What Tropic Thunder reveals in those opening minutes is that the war film as defined as it has been must undergo the metamorphosis entailed in the inherently protean sarcous of cinematic art before it can be considered impressive. For those pondering the conspicuous shortcomings of the war picture in these recent years, this film serves as an equally persuasive compilation of pointed reasonings for the war film's recent decline and an affirmatively loving tribute to the pictures that today still standout in the last few decades.
Where Stiller's film metaphorically takes its gloves off to a certain degree is in its depiction of a ruthless, imperiously and hilariously profane Hollywood producer named Les Grossman, played in a “fat suit” by a bombastically aggressive Tom Cruise. The scenes that follow Grossman's caustic outbursts of rage and grotesque gesticulations are sublimely arresting; Cruise's performance is imbued with tumultuously vulgar swagger, standing as a dark and constant contrast to the effetely sensitive and weak introspectiveness of the acting troupe that is finally stranded in the jungle, attempting to fend for its collective life. Matthew McConaughey's performance as Speedman's persistent agent, Rick Peck, is, simply the best turn he's given in a long time.

Like the better cinematic satires of the past, Stiller's work accomplishes numerous cultural and societal endeavors. The controversy--stirred by people who supposedly took preemptive offense at Robert Downey, Jr.'s “black-face” performance--begun months before the film was released blindly assailed the skin-deep impropriety. What Downey, Jr.'s turn reveals, however, is vastly more insightful and remarkable than many likely believed was possible. Playing a Vietnam-era black man archetype, the sergeant has a hairdo complete with ostentatious sideburns that recalls Fred Williamson, gruffly barking orders to his men. Examining the Vietnam War's hand in accidentally assisting in equalizing the scales of American racial dynamics and shifting cultural awareness in the time of the modern civil rights movement, politicized by both “hawks” and “doves,” Stiller convincingly recalls the complex and varying portrayals of white-black soldiering in Vietnam War films ranging from Apocalypse Now to Hamburger Hill (the latter of which provides the line Downey, Jr.'s black sergeant regurgitates, “Ain't nothin' but a thang.”)

Practically every component of Tropic Thunder seems to have been assembled by Stiller to highlight the commendable but perhaps imposingly intimidating characteristics of certain films. John Toll, whose credits include Braveheart, The Thin Red Line and The Last Samurai, here lights with exquisite lushness that brings the jungle to cinematic life. The essential theme of revived spirits, symbolized and perhaps minimized by the allegorical framing device of professional career repackaging for the three main actors, takes on a fresher and brighter meaning juxtaposed with the honeyed “satire” that almost never touches high dudgeon but rather a more invigorating coming to terms with who we are. As in the aforementioned sequence of self-discovery for Lazarus, the film takes on the beleaguered psyches of the group of actors in a seductively laughable and ludicrous manner, while allowing the narrative to be sharply informed by the insecurities and anxieties that wrack these performers in a way that partly reminds one of films as diverse as To Be or Not to Be, The Seventh Seal and Day for Night.

If Tropic Thunder's bark is worse than its bite, and if it fails to emerge as one of the more viciously cutting satires to be made about the movie business, perhaps this was its destiny as a postmodern picture that, like other more recent satirical efforts, seemed to both condemn and congratulate consumerism and the amorality of the often ill-defined world of “big business.” What it lacks in bitterness, it more than makes up for in amusement, charm and bawdy hilarity. As one who has never found Stiller or his movies particularly enjoyable, this is a redemptive picture, charged by winning charisma and cognizance.

20 comments:

Alison Flynn said...

Wow, quite a detailed critique of this movie. :)

As you know from my comments at LiC I really enjoyed this movie. I laughed from beginning to end, and on that level alone the movie worked for me. But I agree that the satire in this was entertaining and spot on. Great performances all around.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Alison.

Yes, I knew you were a fan. It's simply a hilarious film, one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time. The satire worked for me, though I know some wanted it sharper and perhaps smarter; I thought Stiller's relatively gentle touch worked quite well here, however.

Sam Juliano said...

I hardly laughed at this film at all, and consider it without question one of the five worst films of the year. It was inane, insulting and a sustained drag with humor that bordered of course on self-parody, but always in poor taste. I respect Alison's position however, and don't want to wear out my welcome with her or anyone else who enjoyed the film. I actually liked PINEAPPLE EXPRESS more, and that's saying something, as that one didn't float my boat at all. My wife Lucille also hated TROPIC THUNDER, and my kids, who had no business being in the theatre, found it lame as well.
As far as your review, you again make an eloquent case for those for found much in it humorous and creative. I admire your own penetrating treatment, even if in the end I find close to nothing worthwhile in this dog.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yeesh, I'm sorry we're on such drastically different pages with this one, Sam. All I can say is, I found it almost ridiculously funny at times. It does have some slow spots, and a couple of the supporting players don't leave much of an impact (you may have noticed, they were perhaps conspicuous by their absence in my review), but I must admit I did find it quite funny and rather successful in satirical terms.

I honestly disliked Pineapple Express quite a bit. I'm one who tends to strongly dislike the majority of the mainstream comedies that come out, and I've sworn off Will Ferrell until he does something interesting, if that ever happens, and Adam Sandler and, also, Ben Stiller and Jack Black are among the comedy stars whose movies I tend to either ignore or strongly dislike.

So, for me, Tropic Thunder was a pleasant surprise. The irony is that as a satire it was, I found, markedly less mean-spirited than most comedies released, for one thing.

I'm always open to radically different views on films than my own, Sam, so as always I very much appreciate your comment. I'm sorry to hear that you were left hating it. Your kids didn't like it, either? I feel dumb. :)

Kerry said...

Nice essay, I just liked this film, not love, so we're on the same page. Sorta.

Alexander Coleman said...

Hi, Kerry, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

Always nice to be, at least roughly, on the same page with someone on a film.

Daniel G. said...

I'm sorry, Sam, I guess I didn't fully realize somewhere along the way the extent to which you didn't like TT! As you know, I have to side with Alexander and Alison on this one. Perhaps it was because I was in a good mood when I saw it, or because I had been so let down by PE and Step Brothers, but it made me laugh, and that can't be said for many movies these days.

That being said, I really kind of hope they don't make a sequel...

Alexander Coleman said...

I had heard it was a big, broad satirical piece and so I adjusted myself going in for something along those lines. And that helped. And I agree, Daniel, one of these late summer comedies had to at least be good (okay, maybe not, actually), and this one was a lot of fun.

Tom Cruise almost stole the film with his belligerence and dancing. HA!

christian said...

I really enjoyed this because I'm desperate for any kind of satire. I think the film is over-directed and needs to be more ruthless. For example, Jack Black should have leapt into the pile of drugs to become a fighting machine. But Downey Jr!

Alexander Coleman said...

"For example, Jack Black should have leapt into the pile of drugs to become a fighting machine."

You know, that is exactly what I thought--and it seemed like it was going in that direction, but no. Oh well.

Downey, Jr. was terrific. This was his summer.

K. Bowen said...

eh on the film. But a good review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, KB.

I knew this one didn't float your boat.

sarcastig said...

I need to hand in my review of this movie tomorrow, and your (very thorough and well-argued) piece is very helpful to determine my thoughts. I agree with you completely on Robert Downey Jr, and the layeredness of that particular character and plotline, but I thought the rest was a bit too broad, and Cruise's performance didn't do much for me AT ALL.

Anyway, better go write my review. I'll have a hard time surpassing this though!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Hedwig. I'd love to see your review!

Tropic Thunder is certainly not a restrained film, and it is rather broad, but I'll stick to it as being very funny regardless.

I know this will sound like I'm from another planet, but I actually thought Cruise brought some surprising depth and nuance to his portrayal, despite the over-the-top fierce frivolity at the performance's core. I guess the question is, which Hollywood producer did he model this on?

laura said...

Another terrific review! Wow, I didn't think of this film having so much to it but you do a great job analyzing all of it.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Laura, for the very kind words.

Moses Hernandez said...

Very surprising review here and definitely the most intelligent look at this very funny movie. It's broad but actually good. You nailed a lot of what is going on underneath all the silliness.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Moses.

chester rooney said...

i identified with this movie because i fought a panda bear once.
in southeast asia things can get a little bit crazy. my laotian friends would tell you di di mao du ma may. the man in the black pajamas is always watching.....and waiting...and so am i. so am i.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, okay, Chester, okay...