"...says nothing new or particularly funny about the movies we watch or the tropes we fall for..."

Not Quite as Clever as it Thinks it is

(082208) The closest Ben Stiller has come to creating a real character — actually inhabiting a role and playing its reality — was probably his performance as the hapless but decent Ted in 1998's "There’s Something About Mary."

That was ten summers ago (he did interesting work in the same year’s Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight, and Your Friends & Neighbors too), and since then Stiller seems to have been content to condescend to the jerks and nitwits he plays. A smug, superior tone has crept into his acting and calcified there. Stiller’s new vehicle, Tropic Thunder, which he also co-wrote and directed, has been talked about as his comeback — his bid for edgy comedic cred after too many Night at the Museums and Heartbreak Kids. It isn’t, though. This time, Stiller doesn’t just smirk with hip disdain at the doofus he’s playing — he does it at the entire acting profession.

Tropic Thunder has one of those wheels-within-wheels insider plots much beloved of young talent disgusted by the Hollywood machine. A Vietnam war epic called Tropic Thunder is being filmed on location. Its stars — lunk-headed action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), self-destructive fart-humor hack Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and obsessive Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — can’t quite find the reality in the overwritten script (based on a book by a ‘Nam vet played by a growling Nick Nolte). The stars’ hesitations are costing the production millions, so Nolte’s character suggests turning the actors — rounded out by rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and levelheaded newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) — loose in the jungle so they can experience its pains and perils for themselves. Unfortunately, some heroin runners are camped nearby, and they have live ammo.

It should be said that Robert Downey Jr.’s prowess continues here. As a blonde Aussie actor straining for verisimilitude in anything he does, including getting skin-pigmentation surgery to play the black soldier Lincoln Osiris and never breaking character, Downey imbues the movie with whatever soul (though I use that word cautiously in this context) and commitment it has. Kirk Lazarus’ devotion to his craft is supposed to be one of the movie’s little jokes, but Downey transcends the joke. The script tries to make fun of Lazarus for appropriating black skin and attitude, but the joy Lazarus/Downey takes in the performance — which never comes close to mockery or “blackface” — wipes out the movie’s inside-baseball jeers at self-serious actors. He’s certainly more fun than anything else in the film.

Even Lazarus, though, is ultimately betrayed by the movie’s big banal point — that actors are insecure princes ruled by coarse kings with money. The coarse king here is Tom Cruise as a fat, bald studio boss; the problem is that Cruise is too identifiably Tom Cruise larking in a bald cap and padding — he doesn’t bother to create a character, either. (It’s his usual win-win-win persona in Homer Simpson drag. Cruise could use some Kirk Lazarus juice.) Actors are insecure! Stop the presses! The movie is also about how they man up and prevail under pressure, so the satire doesn’t cut very deep. The jaded, cynical screenwriters (including Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux) take soft shots at the hand that feeds them.

Aside from Downey, a chameleonic actor without the need for De Niro-esque physical transformation, Tropic Thunder probably needed to be cast with actual stars ribbing their standard personae; imagine Vin Diesel in the Tugg Speedman role (and how much funnier he’d have been going “full retard” in the Simple Jack clips). Stiller and Black are playing actors hackier than they are (Downey isn’t, and doesn’t condescend to Lazarus or Osiris), which is a way of being a hack while pretending you’re above it. For all its movie-within-the-movie cleverness, Tropic Thunder says nothing new or particularly funny about the movies we watch or the tropes we fall for (I did, however, laugh heartily at a bit between Downey and a fellow superhero-blockbuster actor who will go unnamed here).

At the end of the day, what we’re watching is a lot of sketch-level buffoonery against a backdrop of big-budget explosions and gunfights — which are supposed to be taken ironically, of course. But ironic explosions are still as loud and stupid as the same old ones.

Directed by:    Ben Stiller
Written by:    Screenplay by Etan Cohen, Ben Stiller, Justin
Starring:    Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Released:    08/13/08 (USA)
Length:    107 minutes
Rating:    Rated R for pervasive language including sexual
 references, violent content and drug material

TROPIC THUNDER © 2008 DreamWorks SKG
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