Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Film Review--Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder
directed by Ben Stiller
written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
starring Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Brandon Soo Hoo

A brilliant concept, occasional ribald execution and some effective turns by an all star cast do not add up to the type of far reaching comedy/satire that this film could have been. When it works, however, it generates considerable laughter most of which hinges on the ridiculousness of the central characters who mock actors hubris, and their occasional overarching strains for attention.

Leading this motley crew of sissy-pants actors is Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), a serious method actor who has won five academy awards. One gets the feeling that the characters finds himself rather disheartened at having to perform his monkey tricks for a mere action film which has bloated out of control and has seen the film crew waste a four million dollar series of almighty explosions while failing to keep the film rolling. Downey Jr. plays Lazarus as something of an elder statesman. Kirk is verbose, witty, and delivers most of the most appealing lines. He’s satirizing those actors who go to great lengths to prepare for a role to the point of putting on serious amounts of weight (or losing it) or other intense training exercises that inform the method approach. He himself has taken this to its illogical extreme by having his skin tone altered to play a black man in the film. Of course he talks like a pimp out of “Coffy” and raises the ire of rapper Alpa Chino (Jackson), the only legitimate black man in the film.

So the film within this film goes hopelessly awry and nothing seems to be working. In conference with John “Four Leaf” Tayback, novice director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) decides to fly out his actors into the middle of the jungle with cameras and explosives all around in order to show them what real danger feels like. Everything goes according to plan until Damien steps on a landmine and is blown to smithereens. This is where the film slowly degenerates into a mere action picture. All that is left is Kirk’s posturing because for some reason it’s inherently funny watching Downey Jr. pretend to be black. Almost as funny as watching Ben Stiller pretend to be retarded which he does in a trailer for a film that his character, Tugg Speedman made playing Simple Jack in an effort to be seen as a serious actor. Prior to this Tugg is considered the biggest action star in the world having made six installments of a wildly successful franchise. However, his career has sank and he’s not considered much at all anymore.

So, the films stalls once our heroes are out in the actual jungle. Everyone but Tugg realizes they are in grave danger as he insists on following the script they have been provided and making his own way. This gets him kidnapped by the feared Flaming Dragon gang who manufacture heroin. He thinks it’s a laugh and can’t wait for the torture sequence to begin. However, he quickly realizes he’s not in a film and is shocked to learn after he stutters that the tribe worship Simple Jack (it’s the only VHS they own) and force him to play the entire movie for them. Meanwhile, the rest of the group are struggling to make their way through the brush. Jack Black plays drug addled Jeff “Fats” Portnoy”, a soft actor who is famous for making a Eddie Murphy like film where he plays an entire family of lard asses who fart all the time. It’s also funny to watch this character try and fail to suck out the smack while pretending he’s eating candy. The real thrill comes when Fats realizes there is heroin afoot and his giggling excitement is actually sort of contageous. Black is perfectly cast in this kind of role and manages to showcase more than his typical manic zaniness. He notches it down and it works throughout the film.

Despite Kirk’s great lines and Fats’s ample and necessary tonnage, the real laughs in this film come strictly from Tom Cruise’s self-hating Jew, the executive in charge of the production, Les Grossman. I admit I didn’t even realize it was Cruise which made the character much more enjoyable. He’s quick talking, foul mouthed and utterly brutal in how he treats everyone. As he holds the clicker for the sound system and does a perverted little dance, it becomes apparent that Tom Cruise has hijacked this film. Equally amusing is the sycophantic turn of Bill Hader as Grossman’s assistant Rob Slolum. He’s a slimy, petulant little bird who begs to be tossed from a very high window.

Matthew McConaughey has another aggro turn as Tugg’s agent Rick “Pecker” Peck. Pecker is hyper energetic and lives in a glorious pad that positively glitters with celebrity excess. He’s devoted to Tugg to the point of throwing a hissy fit to Grossman when he learns that Tugg has not received the promised T-Vo on set. It’s yet another parody of the lifestyles led by those whose sole job is to ensure the visibility of their clients.

The performances in this film are all sharp if not one-dimensional. The actors know how to do this kind of thing in their sleep and there aren’t very many surprises. Robert Downey Jr. creates a believable character through his gruff pronouncements and his sturdy, authoritative carriage. He’s well-honed in this film and creates a thoughtful, sensitive character who isn’t too tough to cry (on cue). As always a little bit of Jack Black goes a long way and in this one he keeps much of what has made him a star under his hat. He doesn’t try to do too much and it works for him throughout the film. I still can’t really stomach Ben Stiller unless he’s being retarded at which he’s very successful. Otherwise, he’s just like that old lamp in the corner you’re grandmother gave you but you’re too timid to get rid of lest the tottering old beast haunt you from beyond the grave. Still, he’s a fairly competent director so at least they’ve put him to some use. Nick Nolte is again disturbed and convincingly so. He doesn’t seem to have to stretch very far these days to embody a loon. Tom Cruise as mentioned is very funny as the executive. He’s another one I don’t much feel like tolerating but in this thing he’s ridiculous, over the top, and genuinely hilarious. Bill Nader is as usual able to do quite a lot in a limited role. He establishes his character’s obsequiousness early on and it works well for his character. Brandon Soo-Hoo plays the psychotic child-warrior who leads the terrible Flaming Dragon gang. He’s cute, disarming, and entirely fierce in his role.

Overall, this film works best before the actors get too entrenched in the jungle. Once this happens the film merely becomes yet another action film albeit a fairly entertaining one. The actors all do consistent work that carries the film. Ultimately, it’s a sporadically humorous film that doesn’t attain a level of classic satire. It mocks things, and brings them down a peg, but it isn’t consistent in how it jabs the fork into the underbelly of its targets.

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