Thursday, August 14, 2008

Paint It, Black: Tropic Thunder

You've probably heard the rumors that Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller's Hollywood satire, is stuffed full of sophomoric insensitivity. You've also probably heard rumors that audiences are finding this the stuff of great enjoyment.

Tropic Thunder, written by Stiller with Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux, takes on the mentally handicapped (and the actors who play them), wildlife preservation, blackface, Hollywood's Jewish ruling class, and those big-budget war extravaganzas that are all stuff and no substance, all effects and no erudition.

Ben Stiller has been involved in a number of movies based on a surfeit of cheap gags, and he's had trouble extending the gags into feature length. Much of the material Stiller has written, produced, directed, and acted has seemed better suited to a skit; jokes don't have endless elasticity and in stretching these japes past the point of thinness Stiller has paradoxically become an entertainer you are supposed to be able to hip-reference ("Blue Steel"), even if you find Ben Stiller a puerile frustration.

This is the reason a Stiller project starts strong and loses its texture after the first 20 minutes, when there is nothing new to reveal. Stiller picks up a persona and runs with it until it runs out; given the crude outline of the characters this usually means a solid laugh or two before the inevitable groan. He's the king of the ludicrous and the ludicrously improbable; past works show so little evolution that you wonder if you're missing the point or whether you've, also improbably, grown up.

Stiller likes a stale joke and a visual gross-out better than anyone, but until Tropic Thunder he hadn't found the right material with which to combine teenage enthusiasms with adult reservations. To that end, he not only kills his darlings, he blows them to bits, eviscerates them, decapitates them, and, most importantly, humiliates them. The joke is that gross enlargement--Stiller's cinematic ace--is worthy of serious critical dialogue.

Don't confuse this with artistic growth. Stiller is still making Zoolander and Dodge Ball, but through the vicious, honest lens of over-familiarity and contempt. That anyone is offended is in and of itself an offense to intellect; Tropic Thunder is so baldly and badly deliberate that one sees the film as transcending its defensible premise and encompassing our increasingly indefensible mania for absolute political correctness.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller), is the star of an action franchise. In a trailer for Speedman's latest film, he looks much like Lorenzo Lamas, a C-list drone with fading pretty-boy looks. Speedman is cast in the war movie Tropic Thunder with Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) an Oscar-winning Australian actor known for total immersion in his roles. They are joined by Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a fart-franchise comedian (if you know your way around a fart scene, see the obvious steal from Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor) and secondary characters Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).

These are Hollywood actors with Hollywood problems: Speedman can't act, Lazarus can't separate from his characters, and Portnoy has a mountain of flesh and a K2 of a drug problem. When director of the moment Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is unable to control his production, he sends the actors off to the jungle for a bit of guerrilla filmmaking. They quickly stumble off course and into the domain of a pint-sized local drug lord.

The film also features Matthew McConaughey as Speedman's slick-talking, bullshit-walking agent and uglified Tom Cruise as studio head Les Grossman. Cruise's ethnic makeup is on a par with Downey, Jr.'s but is far more indicting: Kirk Lazarus has earnest pathos and is capable of being touching, but Les Grossman is despicable, a human animal in a monster's pelt. That aside, Cruise's portrayal held the audience in rapt attention; not a body budged during the closing acting credits.

Because this is a Stiller film, you anticipate that at some point the film will fall victim to Stillerism, and it does, during a rescue scene where Speedman is being held hostage not just by the drug lord but also by his "Simple Jack" character. In a bid for legitimacy, Speedman accepted a role as--here it is--a retard, without understanding the many permutations of retardedness that will determine acting greatness or acting embarrassment. At this point, you wonder if Stiller has simply run out of steam, defeating himself later in the game than he has in the past. He muscles past this dead air, however, largely due to more big-boom effects and the strength of his ensemble cast.

Overall, this is a tour-de-force not for Stiller but for Downey, Jr. and the film is greatly indebted to his subtler and more insidious economy. His Kirk Lazarus tries so hard for authenticity that you understand there can never be authenticity, whether that be in the form of million-dollar effects, exotic locations, tongue-twisting dialects, or in a mirror held up to oneself. Somewhere along the line, someone has to fake it.

Tropic Thunder is a comic classic built on that serious truth. Behind the gut-spaghetti, the fountains of blood, the napalm and the incompetency, is money masquerading as Art and a world that is going to step on landmines regardless of any nervous attempts at avoidance. In his exaggerated artificiality, Mr. Stiller seems to be saying that we might as well own the traps we've planted for ourselves, rather than leaving them lying around for future generations to discover.


TheSundayBest said...

I have grown tired of Stiller for exactly the reasons you elucidate here. He's good in stretches but those stretches become interminable as a gag is, as you pointed out, killed like so much dead horse.

I wish there was a version of this movie with only Downey Jr.'s parts. He is a rare commodity - an actor as good as everyone thinks he is.

enc said...

I can't stomach Stiller anymore either; it's like groundhog day with him. He does the same thing over and over, and it isn't funny.

Maybe it's time for him to go behind the scenes now.

KATLIN said...

Great dissection of this movie, wow. And I've never really paid attn to Ben Stiller, but you're dead on about how he over does his character where you just groan and want him to stop.

movie junkie said...

Ben Stiller has a track record of doing anything for a laugh