Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Review: Tropic Thunder


Ah, movies about movies. There's nothing more rewarding to Hollywood than making a film about Hollywood. The self-reflexivity of film is worked into the fiber of filmmaking, from the tools to the narratives. From Fellini's 8 1/2 to Altman's The Player to Jonze's Adaptation. there exists a finely honed tradition of movies about movies. Yesterday, I went to see another film about film called Tropic Thunder, and these are my thoughts.

Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a big name action hero star, Robert Downey Jr plays Kirk Lazarus, a big time Australian method actor, and Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a fatsuit-farting comedian. All three of them are starring in the adaptation of Fourleaf Tayback's(Nick Nolte) true story of an almost suicide mission in Vietnam during the crazy years of 1969. When Tayback and the first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) plot to remove the actors from comfort and put them in "the sh*t", they unwittingly put the actors right into real combat with Asian heroin growers.

This is a big time action comedy, with lots of effects, lots of laughs, and some terrific acting, sort of following the
Ghostbusters paradigm of "summer action comedy". Like the aforementioned classic, Tropic Thunder is entertaining and the supporting cast is absolutely top notch, including Jay Baruchel (whom Canadian readers will remember as the lead from My Hometown) and Danny McBride, as the lunatic effects wizard. The leads are also terrific, including the generally uneven Ben Stiller.

The script gives each of the main actors an arc that makes sense from the context of their careers. Tug Speedman must find the place he belongs; is he action star or dramatic actor? Kick Lazarus must find his own identity in a swirling cloud of personas and characters he's played, while Jeff Portnoy struggles to find, earn and keep the respect of his audiences, and thus his self-respect.

But as I say, the film is about film, so it's not enough that these actors play actors. The film goes overboard with laborious Platoon references and steadfastly keeps to a three act Hollywood structure, even commenting on the script matching the "real" scenes.

Hollywood is absolutely in love with itself, more self-congratulating than any other body in the world. They love nothing more than to talk about themselves and give each other pats on the back, ie the Oscars. So it's a double-edged sword when Hollywood makes a movie that makes fun of itself. It plays right into the cliche of a movie about a movie with primadonna actors, while at the same time making fun of that stereotype, but without making fun of the cliche itself.

A missed opportunity is noticeable. Why didn't the film make fun of the cinematic obsession with Vietnam? There are a billion war movies about Vietnam, even though the war was thirty or more years ago, and its veteran are retiring, and the war itself fades from the forefront of the collective unconscious.

But at the same time,
Tropic Thunder takes as many opportunities to make fun of the cliche of big time actors taking on mentally challenged roles as an attempt to acquire the Oscar. Instead of focusing its energies on Vietnam movies, the film schizophrenically takes potshots at actors for "going retard".

However, there's also the arc of Downey Jr, a white blue-eyed Australian, playing the African-American sargeant. It's supposed to be a parody of extreme method acting techniques, and practically every joke soars off the screens. It's a terrific comment on "serious" acting and the lengths actors go to in order to immerse themselves in the character. I certainly wasn't offended or anything at the race themes being poked at by Stiller's blunt directing style, but I did laugh a lot. There's a great bit where Alpa Chino, an African-American actor calls Lazarus out for playing up black stereotypes such as "crawdaddy" and "yessah", and it makes a great comment on white perception of black people.

Spoilers

I can't say I didn't enjoy the film. It's largely enjoyable and I laughed quite a bit. It's not a perfect film, as the major cameo, Tom Cruise, sort of puts a bad taste in my mouth. When we see Tom Cruise as a foulmouthed, hip-hop-loving, fat and bald executive, we're supposed to laugh because it's the opposite image of Tom Cruise that we're used to, thus the contradiction creates humour. But why couldn't the joke have been made without all the baggage of Tom Cruise? Why couldn't they have hired another actor to make the character funny on its own, rather than as a comment on Tom Cruise?

End Spoilers

I loved the movie and would recommend it to any fans of Vietnam movies, or movies about movies. It's a well-written off-beat tale of Hollywood and actors, while at the same time, satisfying the Hollywood formula. Tropic Thunder isn't my favourite comedy of the year, but it's up there.

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