Sunday, August 31, 2008

Simply Bloated: Tropic Thunder

[The Cooler is pleased to provide this guest review from Hokahey, who offers a notable perspective.]

by Hokahey

The much-anticipated blockbuster comedy by and with Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder, a parody of big Hollywood productions itself, comes with controversy. First of all, Robert Downey Jr plays Kirk Lazarus, a talented white Australian actor – his belligerence patterned after Russell Crowe, his deeply-invested method acting patterned after Daniel Day-Lewis – who undergoes a pigmentation change to totally immerse himself in the role of Sergeant Osiris, an African-American soldier in Vietnam. Second, Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a down-on-his-fortune action film star who made his bid for a Best Actor Oscar nomination by taking on the risky role of a mentally retarded man who communicates with farm animals in Simple Jack, an obvious parody of Forrest Gump.

In the same way Tropic Thunder begins with wonderful parodies of movie theater commercials and previews, (the one with Downey Jr and Tobey Maguire – Satan’s Alley – is so artfully believable that it’s stunning more than hilarious), we are treated to clips from Simple Jack. In one scene his mother dies, just like in Forrest Gump, and Jack mourns in exaggeratedly Gumpish manner. Later in the film, Speedman and Lazarus discuss the role in a dialogue employing the word “retard” countless times, and Lazarus explains how Speedman didn’t win the Oscar because he was too completely retarded in his portrayal. More than being funny, this is a pointed commentary on how the Academy selects its winning performers, and Lazarus, in the character of Osiris, realistically employs the word “retard” as part of the idiom his character realistically would use.

Not being African-American, it’s irrelevant whether or not I found Downey Jr’s performance offensive, but I will tell you that I found his performance the most enjoyable part of the film. His performance was something real to hold onto – as it explores issues of racial identity (African-American Alpa Chino chides Lazarus for putting on a cornpone black dialect), lampoons method acting and reveals Lazarus’s identity crisis, which stems from the confusion of always playing someone else. When he tears off his black wig, showing his shock of blond hair in humorous contrast with his black skin (is the treatment permanent?), his shift to Aussie accent and true identity is the film’s funniest, truest, most touching moment.

Being the father of a daughter with Down syndrome, however, I can tell you from experience that Stiller’s way over-the-top portrayal of Simple Jack – and how the drug outlaws just love his performance – is so buried under the ridiculous scenarios stuffed into this film that these scenes and the use of the word “retard” had no effect on me whatsoever.

I remember being more offended by the Farrelly brothers’ portrayal of mentally retarded kids playing sports in There’s Something About Mary (1999). (Uh, interestingly, the film stars Stiller.) I found things to laugh at in the film – especially the dead dog routine – but I found its portrayal of the mentally retarded children to be cruel and it hurt me. My daughter, who has earned many medals participating in Special Olympics track and field, bowling, ice skating and, notably, swimming, displays a bravery, zeal and dogged persistence that overshadows the gimpy clumsiness and belligerent stubbornness presented by the Farrelly brothers. Admittedly, those latter traits are characteristics my daughter is apt to display – but that exaggerated approximation of reality, unmitigated by an approximation of qualities on the more positive side, hit home painfully.

Of course, There’s Something About Mary is not reality. It’s a comedy, and comedies are known for their hyperbole. Way back when, I saw The Thrill of It All with James Garner and Doris Day (yes, that’s way back), and I laughed with everyone else when Garner drives the car into the pool and angrily kicks in the displays of soap his wife has been advertising; then a rainstorm churns up the water and creates mountains of suds that sanitation workers dig into like miners. But I remember thinking, “That’s impossible. That’s ridiculous.”

Nowadays, the ridiculous elements are pushed to the limit. In keeping with the trend, Tropic Thunder is brash and bloated – too bloated for its own good – and it is all hyperbole from its lampooning of violent Vietnam War films and its allusions to Apocalypse Now and Platoon at the beginning of the film to Tom Cruise’s interesting but see-through portrayal of, sorry for the repetition, brash and bloated Hollywood producer Les Grossman.

Yes, there is cleverness here – the premise involving actors playing Hollywood actors who have been thrown into a perilous situation but still go on acting, convinced they are in the midst of a Hollywood fabrication. Anyone who loves films would love that premise. What commentary! But the cleverness, as well as anything that might be construed as offensive in isolation, is smothered under the bloat and the very Stillerian elements of the ludicrous: the dumb thing about the panda bear and all the adopted kids jokes, including the cute little kid stabbing Speedman’s neck as he runs from the outlaws. And many of the bits of parody – like running slow-mo over the bridge just ahead of multiple explosions or the gratuitous sprays of blood from head shots or the jerking body riddled with bullets – seem wasted: we’ve seen sequences like this so many times before and we already know they’re ridiculous.

And that’s the thing – the film is so outrageously overblown (yeah, okay, like the Hollywood blockbusters such as Apocalypse Now that it satirizes) – so offensive to a strained extent (Jack Black as the farting, drug-addicted actor, Jeff Portnoy, describing how he will stroke the shaft and swallow the juice or some such crudity when he offers to perform oral sex so that he can be released from forced detox), that it’s hard to be offended by any offensive reference in a film that is, ultimately, such a loud, disjointed, offensive production as to be readily forgettable.

Much of the film feels tired and strained. I laughed out loud – mostly at comments coming from Downey Jr. More often, the jokes fell flat, and I walked out of the film not remembering precisely what I had laughed at. It’s not the kind of funny movie you come out of – like Superbad – when you say, “Yeah, that was funny – remember the part when…” In addition, I didn’t come out of the film feeling offended by and depressed about people making light of something as serious as mental retardation – and I know how serious it is. I came out thinking, “What an overblown, unfunny display of Stillerian self-indulgence.”


Rob said...

I saw this today. Totally underwhelming.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: Thanks again for contributing.

To pluck part of your assessment that didn’t make it into my review: Your description of “Satan’s Alley” is right on: “So artfully believable that it’s stunning more than hilarious.” I mean, it is hilarious, what with the reference to the MTV Movie Awards. But take the trailer out of its comedic context and strip away the voiceover, and, well, you’ve got a serious trailer for a winter-release Oscar contender, don’t you?

I don’t know what to make of this, but I’m convinced it exposes something significant: What is it about the trailer that’s so “artful”? Is it the lighting? The music? What makes the visuals of that mock trailer seem so realistically highbrow?

Is there an underlying commentary here about the emptiness of the art-house/Oscar-contending films that “Satan’s Alley” so easily yet insincerely replicates? Does the tonal incongruity of those images within a crude (though frequently clever) comedy expose the misguided nature of the generally accepted bias in favor of drama over comedy when considering the artistic merits of cinema?

Again, I don’t know what to make of this. But in this case either “Tropic Thunder” is too clever for me or more clever than it perhaps even realizes. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

David Howland said...

I saw Tropic Thunder the night after I saw Disaster Movie, and I think I might appreciate Thunder a bit more because of the comparison. Both are parody films seeking to make fun of Hollywood. However, where Thunder presents targeted, arguably clever satire on the excesses in acting and the hyperbole in both production and storytelling that exists in Hollywood action movies. Thunder managed to maintain a plot, and it managed to make some serious points with it's humor. While I was laughing, I was also wondering about the reality of the identity crisis situation presented by Robert Downey Jr. I also was struck by the fact that I didn't notice how exaggerated Downey's character was until the movie pointed it out to me. Downey's excessive dialect, besides being humorous, also serves to show exactly how much of this exaggerated profiling goes into film-making.

Disaster Movie, however, was scene after scene of exaggerated, boring, repetitive parody, strung together by the barest strings of a plot. Disaster was simply that: a disaster. And it struck a sharp comparison to Tropic Thunder, simply because it was stupid. Thunder was smart and funny at the same time. I laughed so hard I was crying, but I also left the theater thinking about points made in the movie. Tropic Thunder was smart parody, it was clever parody, and it was entertaining parody. I think much of the "genius" (and I use the word loosely) of the movie is lost in the controversy caused by the points it makes.

Jason Bellamy said...

I didn't see "Disaster Movie," but I assume most movies would get a comparative boost.

Still, good points about "Tropic Thunder" -- especially about how the controversy has distracted from or otherwise overshadowed the genius. And there is some genius there.

hokahey said...

David - Thanks for the comment. You point out my favorite part of the film - Downey's wonderful acting and his character's identity crisis which was revealed in the moment I describe in my post.

Actually, I like parody. The best parodies in "Tropic Thunder" were the previews - especially "Satan's Alley," which was a masterpiece because they played it so close seriousness. I don't like the "Scary Movie" 1,2,3 genre of parody that spawned "Disaster Movie," but I could see some clever parody in "TT" - just, for me, I guess it was never subtle - and I tend to respond better to the subtle. Example - I liked Downey's identity crisis better than some of the more over-the-top parody, such as Cruise's performance as the producer.

For more parody, see "Hamlet 2" with "Thunder"'s Steve Coogan. It's very oddball - and maybe most of it sags - but the parody of high school theater done at the end when "Hamlet 2" is performed is fabulous.