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Shooting War:
Ben Stillerís Tropic Thunder

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Paramount)

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Friday, August 15, 2008


Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller
(Paramount)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

More exhausting than funny, though it is often both, Ben Stiller’s latest excoriation of ego wears you down with its smothering, pop-savvy cynicism. It’s a movie with a lot of half-considered, riffed opinions about everything from the shamelessness of film actors to the international heroin trade. The aim of its intent is regularly dead-on, but the execution is generally a mess — at best incoherent, at worst offensively crass. Stiller’s main idea was clearly to make a subversive comedy with the budget, volume, violence, and weaponry of a summer action movie. The constant explosions, and general confusion of the action instead put too much pressure on the sight gags, cameos, and improvised banter to balance the equation, and it doesn’t happen. You walk out not having seen a movie — it never materializes.

After some fake commercials and trailers starring the Tropic Thunder characters (Stiller’s Tugg Speedman in Scorcher VI: “Here we go again… again!”), we’re dashed headfirst into the shit. Rounds pop, bodies explode, entrails pour out of sliced soldiers. The first meta-wink, when a reverse shot reveals a director (Steve Coogan), and the fact that it’s all the set of a Vietnam movie, comes soon after, but those first few minutes are genuinely terrifying. The opening banks hard on a desensitized audience already in on the joke, and maybe it pulls back in time, but the unnecessary garishness of that intro sets the tone of near-hatefulness to come. Tropic Thunder goes beyond obligatory gay and fart jokes (though there are plenty), creating unsavory worlds within worlds in which all the players are bile-filled phonies. It can be hard to laugh for wincing.

Once Coogan’s Damien Cockburn is forcefully removed from the picture, the action follows fading box-office king Speedman, heroin addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Australian-in-blackface Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), hot-shit Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and the eager Jay (Kevin Sandusky) as they bungle about the jungle attempting to finish the picture (they think cameras are stashed in trees). When a band of violent drug smugglers mistakes them for real soldiers, the movie becomes something like reality, lines are blurred, and so forth. On the periphery, Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) and a profane, oft-dancing studio exec (Tom Cruise) debate the financial and moral strings attached to rescuing the actors. Cruise’s Les Grossman, in fat suit and bald cap, screaming for Diet Cokes and delivering lines like “Take a big step back and literally fuck your own face,” is the biggest of the movie’s many miscalculations. Cruise can be funny (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire), but the actor’s ballooning weird-guy baggage makes this spiteful turn a puzzling distraction. McConaughey, too, is oddly cast. Is he a personality, when in manic, hammy mode, that audiences are eager to howl at?

The phenomenon of actors in war movies believing their own hype (going to boot camp, knowing the horrors of battle) is Tropic Thunder’s primary target, but Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen extend their aim to include all actorly vanity. One bit, revisited in numerous clips and live reenactments, shows Speedman in the role of Simple Jack, a mentally impaired young man (or “retard,” as Lazarus calls him repeatedly, which has angered disability advocacy groups who view that term as hate speech). Stiller plays Jack as broadly as possible, knowing that he has to go ridiculously far to show that he’s lampooning the actor, not the subject. But it’s tired — the jig has been up on the Rain Man/Shine/I Am Sam stunt for years now, and parodied more bitingly on Mr. Show, South Park and elsewhere. And what parody could be broader than any given clip from Riding the Bus with My Sister or Radio? Were he being even more self-critical, Stiller might have satirized the actors who find their serious, cred-boosting voices as drug addicts, as he did in the lousy Permanent Midnight.

Downey’s allegedly controversial performance (perhaps DreamWorks nudged along the nontroversy?) is tame by the movie’s standards, and he gets many of the best lines (“I don’t read the script. The script reads me.”). Stiller remains a funny dude to watch, and going over the top to take egos down a peg has been his personal specialty since his Fox show (the blinding white teeth of Tony Bobbins) through his pizza-fucking Dodgeball turn. His go-to move, honed with his Springsteen and Bono impressions, is saying absurd lines with earnest gravity. The inspiration for Speedman can’t be traced to one source (except for direct visual quotes of Willem Dafoe in Platoon and Brando’s Kurtz), and it’s a funny composite. The director Stiller’s sharpest moment might be a scene in which Speedman is briefly deafened by an explosion, and the soundtrack goes quiet to “put the audience there.”

There aren’t enough potshots as spot-on as that one. That’s what really makes Tropic Thunder a drag, not the minstrelsy, “r” bombs, paddy hats, excessive violence, East Asian stereotypes (flirted with too in Zoolander) and that truly disturbing Cruise performance. Satire can be more than saying something sillier and louder than the original.

 

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