Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is great. It's unbelievably good. It's, by far, the best mainstream, studio-released comedy I've seen since Anchorman, and it stands taller than that insane Will Ferrell vehicle. It's howlingly funny. And, unlike a lot of recent comedies that, while very funny, are terrible, amateurish movies (*ahem* 40 Year Old Virgin), it actually works as a good, silly movie too. Tropic Thunder has discipline, exactitude. Its plot takes surprising, inventive turns. With very few exceptions, its scenes are pitched perfectly, the comic timing is spot-on, and the movie entices with less rather than more. For once, I wanted to see more of these people riffing with one another. I was excited about seeing deleted scenes on a future DVD. And, around the time Tom Cruise, as a megalomaniacal gazillionaire financing the titular film-within-the-film, started randomly dancing, I couldn't wait to see the movie again. What a relief! What a wonder! Ben Stiller deserves an MTV movie award or a Commie (my fictional Comedy awards trophy) or something for the direction and writing here. Forget it, that's a half-measure. Let's give the script, by Stiller, Justin Theroux(!), and Etan Cohen, an Oscar nomination. It's a near-perfect example of ensemble comedy writing. Everyone has a moment, every character works, and the supporting players are interesting, well-observed, but don't overwhelm the movie. The plot is silly and earnest and perfect for the comedic characters that populate it. What sentiment exists in the film is as hyper and crazed as its characters, and, thus, the growth of its characters is earned, but never schmaltzy. When they have big revelations about themselves, it induces laughter, not eye-rolling. And the movie is paced well. It maintains its arch, manic tone for the entirety of its runtime; the laughs are good, respectable, intelligent laughs, and they happen throughout. Tropic Thunder is great, great, great.

The film is a joke on Hollywood and celebrity culture, taking potshots at Vietnam war films and the hardships of making movies, but it's not a smart, clever satire in the vein of Robert Altman's The Player. If anything, the film's plot and tone has more in common with the broad, crass brushstrokes of Airplane! or Three Amigos! (perhaps the movie should have an exclamation point at the end of its title too?); it's more spoof than satire. It focuses on a group of vain, whiny actors, during the making of a prestige Vietnam film. After their incompetence ruins an extremely expensive shot, the director takes them into the jungle in order to exert more control of them and get better performances. Soon, they become stranded in the wilderness and must find their way back to civilization. Meanwhile, they face a very real threat from a group of local drug manufacturers who've confused them with DEA agents. The line between fantasy and reality is blurry to these actors, particularly Stiller's action movie star, and some aren't sure if what's going on is real or part of the movie-making process. This, of course, owes a debt to Amigos, but this film casts a wider net. It mocks not just the clueless actors and production crew of the film, but brings in the equally clueless agents and money men of the Hollywood system. Here, it finds great comedic treasures in the negotiations between Tom Cruise's gazillionaire and Matthew McConaughey's agent character, a scene of such delightful insanity that I fear nothing in deeming it a classic. The film is loud, but shows bravery in screaming about the insanity of Hollywood. It's a world where it is perfectly logical to think a virtuoso, white actor might dye his skin to play an African American, and a world where he would thereby get the role over all the talented African American actors out there. Pointing this out is funny enough. Having this actor embrace another African American actor and lament the 400 year suffering of "their people" is gravy.

So, while the film is more broad than subtle, it works in a way that movies of this ilk rarely do. It isn't content to just deconstruct or mock the tropes of the films it targets or the behind-the-scenes archetypical characters that are its subject, though it most certainly does this. However, like Airplane!, Thunder, both mocks and celebrates the cliches it skewers. Through derision, it actually rediscovers what made these moments or these characters meaningful in the first place. When Robert Hays successfully lands the plane at the end of Airplane!, it's a joke on the many Airport films of the 70s, sure, but it's nevertheless a delight to see this very silly character triumph over adversity, a delight that another trite Airport movie could not have achieved. Here, seeing a crew of American actors making their way to a helicopter in the jungles of Asia while under enemy fire works in much the same way. Scenes of this nature are so overdone, so overused that the audience laughs when the sound effects fade out and a moaning woman wails away over depictions of violence, and yet amidst the laughter comes concern and real, honest tension. Working in this way--being both a send-up and a celebration--is a very hard line to toe. With too much silliness, you're just watching Scary Movie 4 or Meet the Spartans or Walk Hard, movies that seem to think a reference to a film, inverted somehow, is a joke. Throw in too much drama, and the comedy can float away while the film hits the important beats. Video store shelves are choked with the remains of films that failed to walk this line successfully, some directed by or starring Ben Stiller himself. And yet, with Tropic Thunder, he pulls it off masterfully.

He does not do so without faults. Stiller, the actor, is the weakest link here; he's very clearly not up to the task of acting alongside his ensemble (particularly Robert Downey Jr.); he plays his Tug Speedman with far too much jokiness to invest in the character (after the movie was over, I wished that Cruise had also played Stiller's role in the film... it would have taken the movie to even loonier heights). He's a Saturday Night Live goof on the notion of an action star, and his scenes are the most mawkish, the most obvious. He's a distraction. Stiller is protected by a brilliant ensemble (hey, Jack Black is funny again, everyone!) and his solo scenes are still sharply written, despite his lackluster execution. This is fortunate, as otherwise, he may very well have sunk his own movie in one or two scenes. The movie also nearly overwhelms at the end with one too many climaxes. But, it's undeniably wonderful to see these clowns come through for each other in a pinch, and just as it starts to seems as if the movie has no more ideas but will continue needlessly, it ends. Anyway, the rest of the movie is so maniacally entertaining, with such an enjoyable, crazed tone, that its final moments of largesse are eminently forgivable.

It is, perhaps, just as ineffable to dissect the success or failure of comedy as it is to create it. Sometimes the joy of watching a successful comedy comes solely from watching good craftsmen ply their trade--Duck Soup, for instance, isn't necessarily "about anything," but it is a treat from beginning to end. I'm not sure that Tropic Thunder has a central point or thesis other than Hollywood is made up of a collection of selfish weirdoes. And I doubt any thesis one could pull out of this confection would shed much light on the moment when Jack Black bites into a live bat in order to get his heroin back or the brilliant, understated straight-man work done by Jay Baruchel as an unknown actor forced to contend with these massively insecure superstars. The film merely takes its heightened, exaggerated characters and puts them through one hilarious grind after the next, punishing them for their arrogance and self-absorption. And, still, there's an affection for them, a sense that what they do, however self-aggrandizing it may be, has value, or is, somehow, at its core, part of everyone's experience with the world. Is that true? I don't know. I don't care. Tropic Thunder takes some very good comedic actors and puts them in some great moments at the service of a clever, funny plot. It does this extremely well, and, in so doing, it's the best Hollywood movie of the summer.

Would be a good double feature with: Blazing Saddles


Q said...

I was wondering if this movie would be worth a popcorn! On my list.
Thanks for the commentary.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree that alot of the recent comedies and sppod like movies aren;t thate great for one reason or another- I won't go back in your post and find the exact words. I just know alot of those movies don't even appeal to me. Tropic Thunder however- was a good movie for sure. and though it might not be on my "list to own" I found myself laughing because it was actually funny annd just just stupid.

celebrity babes said...

It was a nice comedy movie. I can't stop myself from laughing at many times in the movie. There were some parts in which there lies stupid comedy.