Saturday, August 16, 2008

What do YOU mean "You People"?

Tropic Thunder presents a problem as thorny and twisty as the Vietnamese jungles it finds it's characters lost in. The problem being, whether one should settle on the film as an exceptional spoof and sublime mainstream comedy, or should one expect and demand more and wish that the filmmakers had pushed to make an out-and-out satire? Should we as viewers expect that a very good film push itself to be great? That a great film should be timeless? Perhaps one should, if the potential is there. If nothing else Tropic Thunder is bursting with potential and it gets about 85% of the way there. The film makes good use of its R rating to bombard the viewer with strings of creative obscenity and gloriously over the top gore all in the service of getting laughs. Its most certainly the best comedy on film that Ben Stiller has ever been responsible for. The plotting too is very solid, scripters include the aforementioned Stiller working with another writer/actor Justin Therouex (State, David Lynch and Charlie's Angels fans [any takers for all three?] will likely all recognize the name) along with Etan Cohen (not to be confused with either Ethan Coen or my friends Etan Greenbaum or Amir Cohen). They do a respectable job in defining and juggling a good dozen or so characters and give them all compelling arcs. The same can be said about the cleverly informed tone as set by the choices in soundtrack (Buffalo Springfield, Edwinn Starr etc) and the lush cinematography of Thin Red Line DP John Toll. I just wish the film had a little more on its mind then simply that the Hollywood mainstream is a money hungry machine and that most actors' processes and motivations are pretty ridiculous. I struggle here because these two ideas are in and of themselves ripe for being mined for comedy gold. Stiller and co succeed at this but given the resources at hand Stiller could have crafted something really sinister and biting as opposed to the cheery crowd-pleaser that the film turns into by act three.
The story resolves around a film shoot that goes very wrong. Fading action star Tugg Speedman (think early 90's Bruce Willis or Stallone or whoever) needs a hit and is hoping that the Vietnam drama "Tropic Thunder" is his ticket back to the big leagues. He's also threatened by the presence of superior method actor and nine time academy award winner, Australian bad-boy Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr running through the winners circle with a giant smile on his face). Lazarus is clearly inspired by the likes of Russel Crowe and Colin Farrel (with maybe a dash of Daniel Day-Lewis thrown in for good measure). The very white Lazarus courts controversy and the enmity of some of his co-stars by playing the squad's African American sergeant after receiving a radical skin darkening procedure. Any other actor coupled with any other script would torpedo the film wih this concept but given the way the material is presented coupled with the masterful deprecating performance of Downey (who absolutely steals the picture, as if there was any doubt) it works perfectly.
Keeping Lazarus in line and easing the tension for the audience in this scenario is rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (get it?), played by Brandon Jackson. Chino is part of a duo of younger characters in the squad who are there as the voice of reason, except when he's trying to hawk his various merchandise (though Chino has his own predictable albeit funny secret he's dealing with). The other young rational squad member is Kevin Sandusky as played by Apatow regular Jay Baruchel. Baruchel plays the straight man with aplomb and keeps things level before they spin out of control. He's the heart of the film and is really the glue of the unit and gets the actors on point. Lastly there is the franchise comic actor Jeff Portnoy, a drug-addled spoiled brat who having attained fame through a series of fart comedies where he played all the characters in heavy prosthetics (sound familiar?), is now desperate for legitimacy (and jonesing for heroin). Portnoy is played by Jack Black who's role in the film is much smaller than the advertising would have you believe. He certainly gets his moments but the film is much more about the other four men.
Responsible for wrangling this bunch is inexperienced Brit director Damian Cockburn (Steve Coogan) who, after a scene goes terribly, expensively wrong (in part due to increasingly likable Danny McBride) and under studio pressure (I won't spoil the surprise if you don't already know who plays the Weinstein-esque boss, Les Grossman) follows up on the suggestion of the film's technical adviser (Nick Nolte, who has finally realized that it's hilarious that he's Nick Nolte) to end the actors out into the real jungle and shoot the film guerilla style. The actors will bond, learn to toughen up and not depend on their agents and hangers-ons and their various vices and the movie will get the gritty, realistic feel it needs. It sounds too good to be true, which is why things go wrong fast when after getting dropped off in the jungle the actors are discovered by a gang of blood-thirsty drug manufacturers who think they're D.E.A. agents. With that, we're off to the races.
It's a testament to the screenwriters at how quickly all this information and character gets across as well as how fast we get to the meat of the story, the actors in the midst of actual danger in the real jungle. Once in the jungle the laughs flow endlessly as the clueless bunch slowly but surely becomes aware that they are in very real danger. The conflict that emerges between Speedman and Lazarus is great. Stiller's character, desperate for respect and legitimacy after a disastrous foray into award-bait films playing a retarded farm hand does a good job with his own material, though the midn wonders if Stiller took a crack at himself or let someone (like, say, Matthew McConaughey an already failed action lead) play the part. It's an ultimately fruitless exercise to wonder what could have been, it's just that Stiller does such a fine job conveying the tone and desires of modern Hollywood that it's a shame he doesn't go further. At the end of the day though Tropic Thunder succeeds, gloriously so, as a very, very funny movie.


Karen said...

a very good review. Insightful, endearing, and funny. That being said we're super excited for our link sharing venture.

Thanks a ton for all you've done,


Rob said...

I haven't seen this yet, but this review makes me very excited to.

(Also, I will openly declare myself a fan of The State, Lynch, and, yes, the first Charlie's Angels film, which seriously was pretty fun.)