December 27, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

There’s a blurry yet distinct line between comedy and satire, and Tropic Thunder tries to have it both ways for most of its 107 minutes…with neither approach clearly winning out.

The movie starts off strong, with dead-on fake trailers that mock (in three separate spots) the blow-everything-up action flick, the self-importance of Hollywood “prestige” films, and the belief that we mouth-breathing masses will go see anything if the trailer hits the right notes (i.e., lots of fart jokes).

On to the plot…
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a once-bankable action star whose box office numbers have been shrinking. Desperate and hopeful for a comeback – and to be take seriously as an actor – he signs on to star in Tropic Thunder, a war film based on a novel by a supposed Vietnam War hero. His costars are the Chris Farley-esque Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) – star of The Fatties film franchise (think Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor movies, but even more crass) – and oh-so-serious Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who actually undergoes skin pigment alteration to play a black soldier.
• After several prima donna moments by the three lead actors, plus a mistimed multimillion-dollar explosion, the novice director (Steve Coogan) conspires with the author of the book (Nick Nolte) to toughen up the actors – adding unscripted explosions, bombings, and gunfire to the actors’ war scenes. Guerrilla-style filmmaking, as it were.
• But then, something terrible (yet morbidly hilarious) happens to the director, and the stars get lost trying to find their way back to base camp – only to stumble across a real crime syndicate of drug-runners deep in the jungle. The actors think these baddies are part of the script.
• Wacky misunderstandings begin; cue ensuing hilarity.

Satire is what can make a film pleasurable, even clever; comedy is what makes it fun. And I get the feeling that most moviegoers, after seeing the trailers and posters for Tropic Thunder, expected big, blow-out, hilarious fun. Frankly, I was expecting more of it myself.

Once again, Stiller (who directed, produced, and co-wrote Tropic Thunder) gets first billing in a film where he’s not the best thing in it. That honor belongs to Downey who, in his character’s words, is “the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude.” There was some public concern about Downey going the blackface route, but he portrays a gruff, macho, ass-kicking black man just this side of not turning it into a racist stereotype.
In the last act of Tropic Thunder, the characters get all deep and self-reflective, while the film ultimately mutates into a blow-em-up action movie – exactly the type of film they’ve been trying to satirize for the first hour. Look, if I want a testosterone-injected rescue mission set in Vietnam, I’ll watch Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action, or Rambo. What I want here is a comedy; make me laugh. Or even a good satire; I’ll settle for a smirk.

There was a small, forgettable debate when Tropic Thunder was released – whether the jokes were too “inside” for people outside the film industry to appreciate or understand. I think it’s a non-issue: Thanks to the Internet and countless entertainment TV shows and magazines, most viewers will probably get many of the jokes and send-ups. But getting them is one thing; laughing at them is another.

I didn’t care for Tropic Thunder in much the same way I didn’t care for Team America: World Police; each film delves so deep to lampoon its target that it fails in the larger goal of being consistently funny.

Closing thoughts:
• I counted on one hand (maybe two) the laugh-out-loud moments – and they were fleeting, not extended.
Tom Cruise’s heavily disguised cameo as a foul-mouthed, ruthless studio exec screams “stunt casting” loud enough for Marlee Matlin to hear.
• I did smile a few times at Stiller’s slick yet ridiculous agent, played by Matthew McConaughey – and I definitely related to him when he equated TiVo with food, shelter, clean water and clean sheets.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to see it?
I can see where your kids might have interest in Tropic Thunder based on the kid- and tween-friendly films made by Stiller (Night at the Museum), Black (School of Rock, Kung Fu Panda), and Downey (Iron Man). But the film is rated R for strong, coarse language, drug use and references, and some graphic (though comedic) violence, so I'd recommend checking it out before allowing your offspring to watch.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she's a die-hard Ben Stiller fan, maybe she'll enjoy Tropic Thunder more than I did. But if she's expecting a consistently funny, laugh-out-loud comedy (the way the film promoted itself), I think she'll be disappointed.

Tropic Thunder
* Director: Ben Stiller
* Screenwriters: Ben Stiller & Justin Thoreaux
* Stars: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Danny McBride, Steven Coogan, Nick Nolte, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel
* MPAA Rating: R (pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, drug material, panda cruelty)

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Gemma said...

Hmmm...I was thinking when I started reading this that your Dad might like this, but maybe not so much. Hilarious review,FF--My fave was the Marlee Matlin line. :)

Kristin said...

"Wacky misunderstandings begin; cue ensuing hilarity." Enough said for me to want to avoid this. (Not that this would have even made my list of the next 500 films I want to see, anyway.)

creative-type dad said...

This had some funny parts, but overall wasn't that great. I did like Robert Downey, Jr.'s character - very funny and ironic.

And the rapper "Al Pacino" was a pretty funny concept too.

My favorite Ben Stiller movie is still Zoolander.


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