Friday, August 29, 2008

Tropic Thunder: Tenacious Iron Zoolander!

Comedians are often the hardest working guys in show business.

You may not like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black or Ben Stiller, but you know what? These guys never phone it in.

They've all been in bad movies, but the movies were never bad because the actors weren't trying. (I remember Groucho Marx commenting with disdain on a critic's observation that a mere comedian was capable of dramatic acting, with Marx's rebuttal pointing out that comedians are required to do all the acting dramatic guys do all the time and often compressed within a few seconds.)

This is a rather odd way to start talking about a movie which, in essence, makes fun of actors. Brutal mockery. And has both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise in my favorite role of his since Rain Man.

Hollywood satires are often dry (Altman's The Player), ridiculously broad (Edward's S.O.B.) or ultimately succumbing to what they are lampooning (McTiernan's The Last Action Hero). This, by the way, would make a great weekend trilogy. Or, they're just plain stupid, like the recent rash of [blank] Movie ridicule/Airplane!-style fiascos that, for example, make fun of comedies that are way funnier than the objects of their ridicule.

Seriously, this is a good rule: If you're going to lampoon somebody, you'd better be better at what they're doing than they are.

I remember a first-gen SNL where Larraine Newman parodies Barbara Streisand by singing a medley of her hits with altered words. Problem is, even if you hate Streisand, you have to concede the quality of her singing and the most prevalent thing I remember about the song (the lyrics of which attacked, perfectly legitimately, her acting and her apparent self-centeredness), is that Newman cannot hold a candle to Streisand in the singing department. (South Parkwas more successful decades later by just painting her as a crazed megalomaniac and not going anywhere near her singing ability.)

But really, movies like The Comebacks(which parodies the far superior Dodgeball--actually, in The Comebacks' case, it's clearly a rip-off, not a parody--and Disaster Movie (which parodies the far superior Juno) don't do themselves any favor by drawing comparisons to other, better comedies.

Note that the original, classic Airplane!primarily parodied the melodrama Zero Hour! which nobody on Earth had seen, and a bunch of classic movies, along with referencing the plethora of airplane-based disaster movies, which had been given a decade--that's a decade without DVDs and Internet--to season. I'm pretty sure that matters, even if I'm not sure how. (I know that when I saw it, despite having seen most of the Airportmovies, I really didn't think "Hey, that's from Airport '74!" or anything.)


Tropic Thunder parodies Hollywood and actors, and Vietnam war movies--though, again, primarily as they reflect on actors' desire for legitimacy.

Stiller plays an action hero--fairly believably, for someone who's played Mr. Furious--searching for credibility by moving out of the straight-action genre and playing a retard, and then doing a "serious" war movie.

Another digression here: It's appallingly true that the Academy is an absolute sucker for "retard" roles. As Downey's character points out, though, you can't be a "full retard", like Sean Penn in I am Sam, it has to be a half/not-really retard like Hoffman in Rain Man or Hanks in Gump.

For people who know, live with, and love brain-injured people, this fantasy view of the handicapped is appalling, on the level of The Magic Negro. It reduces these people to their injuries plus some bullshit enchantment.

A lot of brain-injured people are savants, mind you. Way more than anyone understands. But this doesn't change the fact that, this savant-ness doesn't really improve their quality of life, and most importantly that they are still humans with all the human frailties that we have, plus a few more we can't comprehend.

Almost weirdly, it's only comedy that actually respects the brain-injured, by being willing to treat them like everyone else (e.g. South Park's Timmy or the Farrely Brothers movies, like Stuck On You.

Stiller's character in the movie is the one I have the hardest time connecting to a real world actor. He's sort-of Willis. Maybe Schwarzenegger or Stallone? Sort of a melange, or archetype, but a lot of what he did would've been physically funnier if he were 6-plus-foot and ripped.

That's nitpicking, since there's plenty of absurdity and good jokes to go around.

On the other hand, Downey plays, essentially, Russell Crowe. I don't know if Crowe is a method actor, but Downey plays one of those guys who gets so into the role, he loses himself. That, of course, is a little nod to himself, since that was reportedly what happened with Chaplain. Since Downey is playing a black guy, he becomes a kind of parody of Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree--which really pisses off the actual black guy in the cast, played by Brandon T. Jackson (whose character goes by the moniker Alpa Chino and sells "Booty Juice" and "Bust-A-Nut" bars).

Meanwhile, Jack Black plays...Robert Downey Jr.! Not exactly, of course. His character is a melange of those comedians like Eddie Murphy who play all these different roles in one movie and wear a lot of fat suits. But he's the bad boy drug user who can't be insured--and if that's not Downy ca. '95, I don't know what is.

So we have these three mega-actors and their mega-egos on set with a green director trying to make a "serious" war movie. In desperation, the director (played by Steven Coogan of Tristram Shandy - A Cock and Bull Story) ends up listening to hard-bitten war vet Nick Nolte (author of the book on which the movie is based) and decides to go guerilla by seting the actors down deep in the jungle and letting them fend for themselves.

Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does! This movie balances very delicately on the line between dark humor and absurdist comedy. Something that Stiller, the director, has not always succeeded in the past. (Compare to The Cable Guy--commonly regarded as too dark--and Zoolander--which is very broad, and not dark at all, except in the actual filming.)

What I'm saying is that land mines aren't all in the movie. Kill everyone and you have a movie people aren't going to see. Make everything goofiness, well that's a turn-off, too.

On the other hand, paint your characters as ridiculous but still very human, don't be completely cynical, and be as real as you can without dragging the movie down--this is a damn hard thing to do and Stiller pulls it off.

Cruise's character is the closest to pure evil, while McConaughey is given an opportunity to do the right thing in the face of a very tempting offer.

Everyone liked it. I found myself wondering halfway through why it was R-rated, until Black, going through withdrawals, described in detail what he would do to Jackson's penis if he'd let him go. It's only about 30 seconds long and it's not that graphic, but, eh, what's a ratings board to do?

Before closing out, a shout-out to former child actor Jay Baruchel (of Are You Afraid of the Dark?) who plays straight-man to all the heavyweights and does a fine job.

A great close to a pretty damn good summer.

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