' ' Cinema Romantico: Tropic Thunder

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller's latest comedy-action film (because I read somewhere he didn't like the term action-comedy and, thus, I've cleverly inverted them) hits and misses, though I found more of the former than the latter. It's about a group of actors on location in Vietnam to film a war epic only to unwittingly wind up in a real-life war with a heroin cartel. But it's more than a spoof of the movie-making process, it's a spoof of Hollywood itself. It's about self-absorbed, clueless actors, directors in over their heads, megalomaniacal producers, and writers who don't necessarily write what they know but what they wish they knew.

Our platoon: Stiller is Tugg Speedman, a cushy action star on the verge of being washed-up whose attempt at a serious drama has failed spectacularly. Jack Black is Jeff Portnoy a comic actor who offers nothing much more than a bunch of fart jokes (literally and figuratively). Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, a five time Oscar winner who hails from Australia and is so insanely method that he has undergone a surgical skin procedure to make his face black in order to portray the film's African American sergeant. Brandon T. Jackson is Alpa Chino, the real black man on the movie who is none too happy with Lazarus's intense process. Jay Baruchel is the newbie and because he's the newbie he seems to be the only one of the bunch with any brains.

As the film opens the film's first-time director Damion Cockburn (Steve Coogan) finds his movie behind schedule and behind budget only a few days into production. The preposterously foul-mouthed producer back on the Hollywood ranch Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, in a bald cap) needless to say is unpleased. Therefore the author of the book on which the movie is based, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), suggests to the director they take the main actors deep into the jungle and make the movie as real as possible. Little do any of them know precisely what this severe reality entails.

There has been a dash of controversy surrounding the film and, no, it's not Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee raining down proclamations in reference to Downey Jr. playing the entire film in blackface (as one would expect) but instead stemming from Stiller's character's attempt at serious drama coming via "Simple Jack", the tale of a mentally challenged person. The primary issue is the film's continuous employment of the word most used by modern culture when referring to mentally challenged people.

We live in too sensitive a world, of course, for this word to be uttered so many times and not have people get irate and I'm fully aware of the word's negative conotations and I myself try to refrain from ever saying it but the movie's intent is to mock Hollywood's belief that by playing characters of this sort you can ensure yourself Academy hardware. There is a conservation between Tugg and Lazarus in which Lazarus berates his acting counterpart by having gone too far in the role of "Simple Jack". Does the scene itself go too far? Is it offensive? Yes, I suppose it is. But I also do not doubt, not even for a second, that this conversation has been had many times before in Hollywood. If the movie doesn't push the envelope than it rings flat and feels false. But if it does push the envelope you wind up with people protesting on the red carpet. No one wins. I thought Stiller made the correct decision because I felt he was mocking Hollywood-ites and not mentally challenged people. (In the third act, however, the movie might take it just a bit too far, but I would still argue Stiller has always seemed like a genuingely decent person and I really doubt his intent was to offend anyone other than people in the entertainment business.)

But if you waste your time complaining about that subject matter you'll surely miss out on one of the finest performances of the year - Downey Jr., disappearing into the role of an actor who disappears into his roles, brilliantly and delicately handling the role of a way-too-devout white actor pretending to be black. The movie offsets the potential danger here by including Alpa Cino who can keep mocking Lazarus's obvious idiocy but if you can't appreciate this slam-bang job of acting, well, I've got no sympathy for you.

It's a pointed jab at the many method actors in our current landscape and while comparisons to Russell Crowe, what with the Australian accent, are inevitable the name Daniel Day Lewis (who I love!) kept popping into my head. Don't forget that it was Day Lewis who prepped for "Last of the Mohicans" by camping out in the wilderness for weeks all by himself. During the aborted crying scene at the start Lazarus gets so worked up he winds up drooling on poor Tugg. They cut and try it again and again Lazarus generates the drool. Exactly like Day Lewis's clearly calculated drool at the end of "There Will Be Blood"! (My favorite line: "That was tabloid conjection." On paper, not so funny. But the way he phrases it, well, I assure you no one in the theater laughed it as hard as I did.)

Unfortunately Jack Black doesn't fare nearly as well. His character's "trait" seems to exist for no other reason than to allow for him to act like Jack Black - loud, obnoxious, grating. Alpa Cino meanwhile gets saddled with about the most obvious "twist" imaginable. And while I enjoyed a lot of Tom Cruise's tenacious profanity (I think he excels in the role because Les Grossman is so self serious and Tom Cruise himself is so self serious) I have to wonder if his antics over the closing credits were forced into the contract by Cruise himself.

Nevertheless, when the group first finds itself out in the middle of the jungle, the director Cockburn confiscates everyone's cellphones to make them more authentic but Lazarus declares, "They didn't have cellphones in '69. I'm head to toe legitimate." Actually, Lazarus isn't legitimate at all. But Downey Jr.? That's another story. Between this and "Iron Man" (two wildly funny and wildly different performances) I think it's safe to say the summer of '08 belongs to him.

1 comment:

Rory Larry said...

Wow I just couldn't disagree more on most points. The Lazarus character was originally to be Irish (Day Lewis is English but lives in Ireland and has played more than one Irish character) but Downey, Jr thought he could fake an aussie accent easier than an Irish, so they changed it. I definitely would say Day Lewis was the inspiration.