Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008) review


Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is everything its critics have said it is: it's offensive, it walks a fine line on race...oh yeah, and then there's the "tard scandal" hyped by people looking for something--anything--to protest. It's just incredibly an offensive movie, and that's what makes it great. We should demand to be scandalized, but humorless turds are humorless turds.

Like Yasuzo Masumura's "Giants and Toys" (1958), or Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), Tropic Thunder is social satire at its best and criticizes all war movies.

That doesn't mean it isn't entertaining or too high brow. It isn't, and anyone who inhabits this era in the developed world is going to understand the many social and cultural observations in this film. Audiences will also find it very easy to understand exactly who and what are being criticized (the current incarnation of Hollywood and spoiled movie stars).

But Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux (who's also the executive producer and a great English actor) and Ethan Cohen make a whole lot of gleefully brutal comments on our mass culture, our peculiar attitudes, and our unquenchable appetite for spectacle and ultraviolence....wrapped in a movie that's supposed to be "antiwar."

Hollywood and movie production companies tend to overstate their sincerity when tackling "issues" like war, poverty, and all the rest. They don't generally tend to care at all, it's a business move. Tropic Thunder makes this case well throughout.

This was pointed-out by Lenny Bruce in the late-1950s and by many other social critics over the years, and it's not a uniquely American viewpoint. Movies are made to make money--a lot of money--and that's about it. The rest is garnish, with a little sincerity here-and-there in some productions. Fine.

Without giving too much away, we're treated to a troubled Hollywood production stuck in Vietnam, making one of those "horrors of war" films we all love to watch to feel better about ourselves, while doing nothing to prevent the phenomena of meaningless conflict. Hollywood isn't the only one playing the insincerity game, after all. But the writers stick with hitting Hollywood over the head, and as a result, they even accuse themselves of hypocrisy. This is a very brave moral and career position to take, and it's likely to add to the film's popularity for the chances it takes.

Too often, Hollywood creates spectacles that claim some higher moral ground, yet simultaneously cater to the bloodlust of audiences in their stylizations of violence (if they get that far). This is something even "Wild Bunch" (1969) director Sam Peckinpah was guilty of at times, though it's debatable whether it was conscious or not in every case.

Tropic Thunder is where entertainment also becomes art, though this could be one of the funniest and most entertaining comedies I've seen since my first viewing of Animal House. You're in for quite a ride if you have a sense of humor about yourself and life.

The three main characters are the spoiled movie stars, played by Stiller, the inimitable Jack Black, and one of the greatest actors of this era, Robert Downey Jr. Stiller's washed-up Tugg Speedman is eerily similar to Sylvester Stallone or even a Vin Diesel, while Black's Jeff Portnoy might be a heroin-addicted Luke Perry mixed with an Eddie Murphy. But it's Downey's Russell Crowe-like Kirk Lazarus who virtually steals the show as an Australian actor who takes "method" acting too far: he gets plastic surgery to look African-American, and he never breaks character. In short, he's a little nuts, as some actors are, and gets on the nerves of a Black cast member who constantly calls him out.

This alone is incredibly edgy for a contemporary movie, offering many possibilities to fall over the side and lose the audience, but Stiller, Theroux and Cohen (and Downey) pull-it-off and achieve a kind of comic ecstasy only seen in Kubrick's Strangelove and few other films in cinema history. There are times when Downey's Lazarus is photographically and phonographically convincing as a Black soldier, and it must be seen and heard to be believed. But there's even more...

Almost entirely unannounced is Tom Cruise's brilliantly comedic performance as the Weinstein-like Les Grossman, a corporate movie executive whose vulgarity and crassness knows no bounds. It goes beyond spouting the word "fuck," and Cruise has once again made the right move in taking-on the role of such an unlikable (yet oddly likable!) character. The Grossman character understands that he's a fucknut and a tyrannical asshole, and all of the inherent comedy of this fact. In a way, he actually "gets" it all--that the movie business is complete bullshit, a game.

That's not to say that the Grossman character isn't evil, but he's really something to watch in Cruise's expert-hands. Tom Cruise almost owns Tropic Thunder and deserves some serious credit for his performance, possibly even that little gold guy. He's Dr. Strangelove and General Buck Turgetson combined, and he's given us a performance that would have done Peter Sellers proud.

The movie-within-a-movie approach is very sound here, especially at the beginning of the film. What we see are some of the realities of a movie production: all the waste, the backbiting, the egos, the compromises forced on directors by spoiled "stars," the tainted motives for making a "message picture," the addictions, the troubled actors, and the nightmare of shooting outside of a soundstage. The comparisons to other troubled war movie productions are going to be obvious to most, like Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Oliver Stone's "Platoon." There are others, as there was a whole spate of Vietnam war films over the 33 years, many-of-which could be referred to not only as "insincere," but simply bad. The majority of war movies are.

On the "retard" scandal: this is the most overblown part of the release of this film. For the curious, I am acquainted with people who have mentally-impaired children. I wasn't offended by this at all, and the repetition of variations of the word "retarded" simply became funny for its own sake and had little to do with mentally-retarded children or adults. Downey's Kirk Lazarus and Stiller's Tugg Speedman have an exchange over the career-merits of playing the "retarded" over the simply "impaired":
Lazarus: "Full-on retarded--no one ever comes back from that."
Lazarus character mentions a number of films--like "Rainman"--where the characters only appeared to be "retarded," but actually had some other form of impairment. In Rainman, it was autism, and the crazy Lazarus notes that nobody ever won an award from the Motion Picture Academy when they played a "full-on retard," or the "dumbest motherfucker in the world."

Tropic Thunder, then, suggests that what's really offensive is exploiting the impaired to advance one's career and to line one's wallet by making "message" movies about them. The reactions of critics couldn't be more wrong-headed, and should be met with contempt. There are few better antidotes to antidemocratic tendencies cloaked in niceties than unrelenting belittlement and humor. Bravo.

There was no comment being directed towards the mentally-retarded or impaired that was hateful--just the opposite, the attacks were aimed squarely at the hypocrisy of Hollywood in exploiting impaired people for ticket sales, and for actors to win awards. I can say with all honesty that I've never laughed so hard at a scene of dialog in my entire life. There's nothing wrong with referring to someone as "mentally-retarded," it's medically accurate, it's the intent and the tone that count. I leave it at that. Tropic Thunder is a must-see for all the right reasons, and it's what movies are supposed to be. Ben Stiller has topped himself, and so have his collaborators. Good show.