Monday, January 5, 2009

Tropic Thunder: Ben Stiller's Hollywood Hijinks Gets Some Help From His Friends

I confess: I'm not a big fan of Ben Stiller comedies. I thought Meet the Parents was amusing, at best, Night at the Museum a waste of time, and Zoolander totally unwatchable. So I pretty much ignored Tropic Thunder when it was released, particularly given the trailer's focus on the Stiller-type shtick.

That wasn't necessarily a mistake, but upon rental, I can see why this movie has created a small following, and Stiller gets a lot of help from co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (no, not Ethan Cohen) as well as co-star Robert Downey Jr., who turns out to be quite the comedic actor (he's actually on quite a roll, with recent great performances in Iron Man and Zodiac).

The opening is actually quite promising as we get three fake trailers introducing each of the characters cum actors. What makes the trailers even more hilarious are the studios assigned to each, which are nailed just right (Fox Searchlight makes the gay-themed medieval monk story, with Toby McGuire in a hilarious cameo). The movie goes on to become a Hollywood insider parody of the making of a Hollywood war movie, with three different types of Hollywood actors (Stiller, the action hero, Downey, the "serious" actor, and Jack Black, the scatalogically oriented comedian) cast in the major roles. I love Hollywood parodies...if they're you can see here how I right away was hopeful this one might be elevated above the usual Stiller fare. And the first few scenes introducing the set up are quite promising, as everything on set starts to go wrong quite quickly, and Stiller and crew certainly have the film cliches and stock set-hand character types down cold.

Stiller also lands quite a coup casting Tom Cruise as the over-the-top movie producer (allegedly based on Stiller's producer partner Stuart Cornfeld). The role of Cruise in a fat suit with hairy hands is certain inspired comic casting and something that Stiller had hoped to keep secret before the release of the film. It certainly makes a great running gag, though that gag - like most of Stiller's - gets a bit played out by the end of the movie.

The other running gag that's created media attention for the movie is Robert Downey Jr. in blackface, playing the role of a method actor so committed he's had a pigmentation operation and refuses to come out of character. His performance has earned generally positive reviews - basically, he pulls this off well, because the parody isn't so much of black affectation, but of the vanity of Hollywood casting white actors in black roles and the actors who take this stuff seriously. He's just a "dude playin' a dude who thinks he's another dude." It doesn't hurt that he also has Brandon Jackson as a useful foil. Jackson provides the necessary context and commentary to make sure that everyone gets the Downey joke.

Yet while the movie starts of well, it falls victim to the curse of the boring second act, as the actors are placed into the deep jungle and get mixed up with real live heroine farmers out to either kill them or inspire some genuine method acting. Here, Stiller takes a turn away from Hollywood parody and back into Stiller-ville, introducing such impossible and unfunny characters such as a ten-year-old drug kingpin and his gang of twenty, who make a fierce roar but seem to have the organizational capabilities of the keystone cops. Though I should note that he does transition into this part of the movie with quite a startling bang that will likely enter the halls of sick comedy fame.

And the continued machinations of Matthew McCanaughey as Stiller's loyal agent, Tom Cruise as the foul-mouthed producer, and a simpering sycophantic Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live back in sunny LA provide necessary relief from the wearying jungle trek.

By the time the movie ends, then, with the predictable reconciliations, I feel like once again, it's another Ben Stiller vehicle that was good for a few laughs but will be quickly returned to the store. They really seemed to have missed some of the more obvious satire - such as, for instance, an Apocalypse Now moment as the actors go a bit native that was crying out to be parodied (there was even a steer, for gods sake). I think that's where the move messed up: if there had been more Hollywood parody, and less Stiller hijinks, it would have been one hilarious film. But we only get about 1/3 Hollywood parody; 1/4 Downey blackface humor, 1/5 weird Tom Cruise, and the rest is Stiller's Catskill's shtick.

If you like that stuff, then you'll probably love this movie. If not...or if you have an aversion to Pythonesque body parts flying in all might want to give it a pass.

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