August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder (08/17/08)

Lettergrade: C

The lead-up to the release of Tropic Thunder had me suspicious for two key reasons. The first is that DreamWorks started advertising the movie early and heavily. History has taught me that this is usually a sign that the studio's plan is to sell as many tickets as it can the first weekend, knowing that once word gets out, people will avoid it like tainted meat. Look no further than this summer's The Love Guru, 2006's Nacho Libre, or the collected screen work of Owen Wilson and Adam Sandler to see this release-model at work. Awful movies all, where the studio followed the "cash and dash" technique of milking the opening weekend as much as possible before quickly skirting to DVD.

The other thing that made me leery is the film's director / co-writer / star, Ben Stiller. I've disliked Stiller pretty much since I first became aware of him, way back when he was a writer and bit-player on Saturday Night Live in the early 90s. Although he's made pictures that I genuinely enjoy, I find that his comedy is an exercise is over-exertion and desperate self-aggrandizement with little substance to keep the jokes going past a few minutes.

"But the trailers are really funny," people would counter when I'd present these arguments. I must admit that they are, and as it turns out the film itself has many really funny scenes too. Nevertheless, I have to say that much of the really good material is significantly diminished by having been seen in the ads for months. If you liked those initial trailers, the film offers a bit more of the same, but of course with the freedom to be a little dirtier and more extreme. As a cohesive movie, though, it doesn't quite hold up all the way through.

Perhaps it is telling that the best parts of Tropic Thunder are the fake trailers at the beginning and the scenes that happen to include Robert Downey Jr., who plays an intense Australian Method actor, who has "blackened" himself up to play the delightfully tasteless African American "Sgt. Lincoln Osiris" in the film-within-the-film. Compare that, however, with Pineapple Express, another very funny film, which is extremely entertaining and inventive throughout while simultaneous telling a complete story.

Consider Tropic Thunder's odd approach of giving many of its side-characters unnecessary sub-plots and character arcs that don't seem to exist for reasons other than to pad the film out to 2 hours. The story-line is essentially a standard Three Amigos! tale where a bunch of prima-donna actors think they're shooting a war movie when in fact they've stumbled into the real thing. Nevertheless the bit-characters are given lots of business which is neither intended to be especially funny nor is it consequential to the plot. Part of this, of course, is to showcase the all-star cast that Stiller was able to put together, but wouldn't it be funnier to have guys like Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Crusie show up for a short-and-sweet scene or two and then go away rather than hang around needlessly for the whole movie? And for that matter, wouldn't a movie like this be funnier at 90 minutes than at 115 anyway?

There's something about that last part - the thing about celebrity cameos - that bothers me on a deeper level. I mean, the film's whole premise is that it's a comedy action flick with a big "fuck you" attitude toward the glitz and schmaltz of the usual Hollywood movie tripe. But the film is shot by primo Hollywood cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, A Thin Red Line), and most of the A-list cast is unrepentantly guilty of appearing in the sorts of the films that much of this picture mocks. Believe me, I love anything that point out the banality and tedium of the establishment as much as anyone, but I'll maintain that it's very hard to do that when you're the establishment. It's like that big speech that John Travolta has at the beginning of Swordfish where he says that Hollywood's problem is that it makes "pure, unadulterated shit." That's right, John; Shit like The General's Daughter, Wild Hogs, and that awful Get Shorty sequel where you were fat and embarrassing. I have a feeling that guys like Cruise and McConaughey in particular decided to appear in Tropic Thunder because their industry pals convinced they it'd make they seem "hip," not because either feels the need to send-up the big, sappy Oscar bait that has made them both rich and famous. Keep an eye on the next few pictures that those guys sign up to do.

I haven't, however, talked much about Stiller himself yet. He pretty much plays it straight in this one, and in fact even removes himself from the action for a good percentage of the movie. I think that was the right approach to take, but a key problem stems from the fact that his leading-man part is not especially interesting. He's more or less your standard Hollywood actor, and because he's pretty much a blank slate who doesn't care about much, its hard, in turn, to care much about what happens to him. I'm not the kind of guy who thinks that every movie has to have relatable characters who grow or "learn something" by the end, but Thunder climaxes in a way that acts like it has done both of those things - a move that seems both hollow and completely without justification.

Not long ago, I saw an old Saturday Night sketch from the late 80s or so where Stiller plays a grown up Eddie Munster (from the 60s TV show), who, still in make-up, appears on a German talk show in a desperate attempt to make a living from the character. It is a funny concept (well, sort of), but once the idea is put into action and you have Eddie Munster sitting out there being interviewed, the joke doesn't have anywhere to go after, like, four seconds. That's the fundamental problem I have with most of Stiller's humor: While conceptually brilliant, it's rarely enough to hold-up during a 7 minute sketch, much less when expanded to a feature's length. Most of his pictures, even ones he only appears in, are based on concepts that similarly can't sustain themselves (What if Robert DeNiro was your prospective financee's father?!?), and Tropic Thunder, for all its virtues, cannot either. That's not to say that the picture is completely without value or anything, but it is one of those movies where you have to take the really good with a fair amount of bad.

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