Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Aug 13, 2008 3:01 pm 
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Eternal bombast of the mindless spot

In Tropic Thunder a cast and crew go deep into the jungle to make their Vietnam war movie authentic--and fall into real warfare when they land in the territory of Asian drug lords armed to the teeth.

The premise is a great one. Just to hear it is to begin imagining how it might play out. In this summer blockbuster season nothing could have been more welcome than a truly devastating sendup of Hollywood--its narcissism, its pretensions, its excesses, its disasters. Its inability to handle reality.

But Tropic Thunder squanders its fertile theme. The satire is crude, the humor unfunny, the performances not all they're cracked up to be. The comedy is swamped in clichéd music, bombastic explosions and excessive F/X--just like the overstuffed junk this movie is supposed to be making fun of. It's very Hollywood, but not satirical, that $100 million was spent on the production yet it looks cheap; that a lot of well known actors were hired, yet they don't give much pleasure. There are moments of liberating outrage but they don't save the picture from being a big loud disappointment.

It's not true as Robert Downey Jr. said in a talk show that he squanders here the good will he won with Iron Man. He remains a funny, mercurial, gifted actor. But as the much-Oscared Australian thespian who plays a black man and won't get out of character, this time he's just doing a shtick, and his black talk is poorly enunciated. There's a real black man on hand, Brandon T. Jackson, as the actor who's named, with sophomoric wit, Alpa Chino. On screen Jackson's diction is crystal clear. Downey does a better job when he switches to the Australian accent that's supposed to be his character's natural voice. Downey is an actor who's funnier without heavy makeup and a thick shtick.

In this story, which mostly wastes its opportunity to dramatize American movies' wastefulness and fakery, the British director (Steve Coogan) is so incapable of controlling the bunch of prima donnas he's saddled with that $4 million worth of serial explosions scorch the jungle location while he's haggling with them and the cameras aren't even turned on. This is the tipping point. Danny McBride plays Cody, the explosions man for this and subsequent scenes. Just to compare McBride in this to his "Red" in Pineapple Express will be enough to show how shallow all the roles are in this movie and how wasted the cast is.

This faux pas so angers the producer-- an ultra-mean Weinstein surrogate played by Tom Cruise--that he orders the whole cast and crew deep into the jungle so they'll get their noses wet and stop futzing around. Cruise, like Downey, fails to live up to reports. Mustached, portly, and bald, Cruise is given a shallow, unfunny role anybody could have performed. Comparisons with Cruise's bold, searching acting as the preening sex motivator in P.T. Anderson's Magnolia are completely off the mark. This is a stretch for Cruise only in appearance. Anyone could do this crude Weinstein-surrogate. Cruise does do a couple of little dances that are cool and surprising--but they have nothing to do with his character

For the other actors, it seems more a question not of how well they act but how much or little they humiliate themselves. Nick Nolte, cast as the Vietnam vet author whose book they're filming, is not disgraced. He gets to be simply a very down and dirty version of himself. His character is a fraud, but that's much more dignified than buffoonery. Jack Black has a bleached Dutchboy bob and is cast as a star of crude fat family fart movie series who is also a drug addict. There is not much of Jack Black at his best here: he just has to run around and sweat a lot. Coogan gets out early, so he's safe.

Somehow Ben Stiller, because he both stars and directs, seems most reprehensible. By now Stiller has been in a slew of crude comedies. His character's signature role apparently is the "retarded" man Jack Simple. Captured by the Asian jungle drug gang, he's forced to do impersonations of Jack, who's apparently a worldwide hit. No doubt this is a blunt assertion that only the most moronic themes play abroad--an example of how Hollywood underestimates not only the home audience but everybody on the planet. But before this, Stiller has already made himself do so many gross things that there's no longer any "there" there at this point.

This is where the movie gets to be most politically incorrect, with its joking references to "retards." But in fact Downey's speech to Stiller about how it was a bad Oscar strategy to go "retard" "all the way" is one of the only moments that delve into the studio mind. But Stiller's character and his performance epitomize the movies' wretched excess and failure to launch. Apropos of which, Matthew McConaughey is on hand as Rick Peck, Stiller's agent. He is not asked to demean himself, only to focus on the irrelevant (supplying Ti-Vo in the jungle) and to consider betraying his prime client and "friend" when offered a private plane and a lot of money.

How well do bombast and humor work together? Pretty well at some level, but if this is meant to be satire of styles and ways of thinking, the film's ever-increasing noise is quite the wrong way to go. Pineapple Express self-destructed by turning from a stoner comedy to a not-so-funny actioner. Tropic Thunder barely pauses in a pure comedy mode (it's opening fake trailers are no masterpieces) before it goes into the explosions, which must be what accounts for the huge price tag for something that has all the technical finesse of Be Kind Rewind without Gondry's humanity.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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