Sunday, August 31, 2008
Something To Talk About: Tropic Thunder
It’s not often that a movie inspires two separate but equal storms of controversy prior to its release, but Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder did just that. The blockbuster Hollywood satire that raised eyebrows and sparked debate back in the spring with news of Robert Downey Jr’s performance in brownface found itself in the eye of a whole new storm come August when groups offended by the movie’s “hateful” references to the mentally disabled called for a boycott. Over at The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz nodded toward the double lightning strike by astutely comparing Stiller & Co., to “silent movie comedians who carefully back away from a growling dog and fall right off the edge of a building.” Indeed. But what were they falling toward?
If you believe the Hollywood maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Tropic Thunder was falling toward success, thanks at least in part to a lot of free advertising. The R-rated comedy topped the box office charts its opening weekend, booting The Dark Knight from its four-week stay at the summit, and it maintained its position a week later (and counting). The execs at DreamWorks must be pleased. If the controversy soured some moviegoers (including many, I suspect, who were unlikely to contribute to its grosses in the first place), it almost certainly attracted others: curiosity-seekers, rubberneckers, whatever you want to call them. As business strategies go, reveling in the taboo is risky, but it has tremendous upside. A few weeks in, Tropic Thunder’s all-in gamble seems to have paid off. Still, no matter how lucrative the movie goes on to be, its hype came at a cost. The controversy may have sold tickets but it also hit the film right where it hurts: the funny bone.
See, comedy and premature exposure don’t mix. In the current environment of gossip sites and give-away-the-store trailers, it’s unrealistic to expect to walk into a comedy entirely unaware of its punchlines. Still, comedies, like mysteries, work best when they can protect some of their secrets. By the time Tropic Thunder reached theaters, its biggest and boldest gags were well documented, if not always properly contextualized. A collection of mock movie trailers leading up to the main event succeeds in providing some welcome surprises, but after that the brand new movie feels shockingly familiar, like a legendary rock band plowing through its greatest hits. Tropic Thunder still delivers laughs, to be sure, but despite giddily embracing politically incorrect scenarios it never pushes the audience to that place of enthused discomfort prized by standup comedians – the place where the humor of the joke itself is secondary to the boldness of its telling, the boldness of “going there.”
Falling in love with a comedy can be like falling in love with a person. Just like you can keep the passion alive in a relationship despite years of the same, a familiar joke can deliver genuine laughs over repeated tellings. But first impressions matter; subsequent laughs are often a nostalgic embrace of one’s initial response. If you search your mental list of favorite comedies you’re almost sure to find some that you admire as much for the way it made your friend laugh in the seat next to you as for the way it appealed to your own sense of humor. Comedies, more than other genres, inspire us to share the experience, even if we’re sharing it with complete strangers. That’s why they almost always play better to packed houses on opening weekend than to quiet living rooms after a lonely weeknight trip to Blockbuster. And so while the premature revelation of Tropic Thunder’s shock-and-awe gags won it admirers, it also snuffed the thrill of discovery. Falling for Downey Jr’s performance wasn’t like experiencing the jolt of love at first sight. It was like growing to appreciate the attractiveness of a longtime neighbor.
This matters because Tropic Thunder relies upon outrageousness more than cleverness, and its most brazen gag is the one spoiled by recent protests: In a movie that’s about actors making a war movie (or so they think), Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a Vin Diesel action-movie sort whose previous role was an against-type performance in a film called Simple Jack in which he played a mentally handicapped man who cares for horses. Jack, in Tropic Thunder’s parlance, is a “retard,” and the Stiller/Speedman embodiment of him is exaggerated and clownish and in every way politically incorrect. Is it insensitive? Sure. Is it offensive? To some it will be. But is it indefensible? No way.
Tropic Thunder, thru Simple Jack, isn’t asking us to laugh at the mentally disabled. Instead it’s exposing Hollywood’s habit of celebrating actors who don, yep, retardface and asking us what’s so special (see: Forrest Gump, Rain Main, I Am Sam, etc.). The protests surrounding Tropic Thunder actually underline the hypocrisy called into question by the satire: portraying the mentally challenged is considered acceptable if the role is uplifting or otherwise noble, but it’s considered offensive if it’s the stuff of comedy. Tropic Thunder’s problem then isn’t that it’s careless or heartless but that the boycott temporarily rendered it an ethical touchstone rather than a piece of entertainment. Instead of simply reacting to the audacity of the Simple Jack construct and letting our internal radar administer the acceptability test, the prerelease hullabaloo puts us in analytical mode from the very start.
For other films, that would be an accomplishment. But Tropic Thunder, based on a screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, seeks reactions that are first and foremost visceral. That’s why Tugg Speedman noshes on brain matter, why Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy ends up running around in his underwear and why Steve Coogan plays a director with the last name Cockburn. That’s also why Tom Cruise gets a latex makeover to play the balding, hairy-chested, overweight Les Grossman – a diet soda drinking, hip-hop loving producer with a temper. Grossman swears a lot and says otherwise awful things, but the laughs his rants generate are a product of the casting, not the writing. Here’s it’s not Grossman that’s funny, it’s Cruise playing Grossman that induces snickers. (If you suffered through Betty White’s foul-mouthed performance in Bringing Down The House, to cite one similar offender, you’ve been here before.) Of course, if you’ve seen Cruise in Magnolia, the effect of Grossman will be negligible. This was a role for Tom Hanks, not Tom Cruise, who has already been there and done that. Still, the Grossman character is the key to identifying Tropic Thunder’s allegiance to foolishness over commentary.
Not that there’s anything wrong with foolishness. The Cruise episodes are lazy, as are any involving Matthew McConaughey’s insincere agent and Black’s drug-addicted buffoon, yet some of Tropic Thunder’s simplest gags are surprisingly effective: one involving an animal attack in the jungle, another involving Speedman’s attempt to save his “adopted” son. But in final analysis, Tropic Thunder is at its best not when it’s testing the limits of outrageousness but when it’s sending-up Hollywood with gimmicks simple (Speedman’s habit of adding unnecessary stuntwork to any situation) and scathing (the ridiculous devotion of Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus to his method acting craft). At its most witty, Tropic Thunder is to Hollywood what Dr. Strangelove is to politics, alive with deliciously subtle satire. It’s a movie that demands to be discussed, not ignored. But whether Tropic Thunder will leave as much of an impression as it created prior to its arrival, only time will tell.
See also: Simply Bloated: Tropic Thunder