Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review - Tropic Thunder

It has been suggested that the idea for Tropic Thunder has been festering inside Ben Stiller's brain for more than a decade, and at times during the film I wondered if every single thought he has had in the intervening years had somehow made it into the final cut. Stiller's fourth film as a director is one of the most ambitious mainstream comedies in years; a lavishly budgeted satire that lampoons actors, directors, producers and anyone else who dares to make their living in Hollywood, and Stiller is so keen to stick his satirical knife in, he doesn't even wait for the movie to start. Before Tropic Thunder begins, we are presented with a commercial and three trailers that neatly introduce the picture's main characters while sending up aspects of advertising and cinema that have become all too familiar. A rapper named Alpa Chino (Brandon T Jackson) appears on screen to promote his soft drink Booty Sweat; fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) resurrects a tired franchise in Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown; a Chris Farley/Eddie Murphy style comic called Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) dons various fat suits for flatulent comedy Fatties: Fart II; and five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) swaps lustful looks with Tobey Maguire in gay monk drama Satan's Alley.

Although one might question the wisdom of Stiller making jibes at unnecessary sequels (look out for Night at the Museum 2 and Madagascar 2 later this year, folks!), these ads are spot-on parodies, and they're perhaps the most effectively sustained comic sequences Tropic Thunder has to offer. When the film finally gets underway, it becomes something very different, spoofing war films, the business of making war films, and the business of making films altogether. The above actors have all come together to make a Vietnam epic under the hapless direction of British filmmaker Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and when we join the action, we learn the shoot has already fallen a month behind schedule after just five days of shooting. This simply isn't good enough for obnoxious producer Les Grossman (a piece of stunt casting, which we'll deal with later), and when he threatens to shut the production down, Cockburn and grizzled veteran Four Leaf Tayback (grizzled veteran Nick Nolte) decide to dump their pampered stars into a jungle rigged with hidden cameras, a plan which goes awry when the actors find themselves facing off against a Cambodian drug gang.

The notion of actors falling unsuspectingly into real-life danger is nothing new – see the criminally underrated Galaxy Quest, for example – and in many ways, Tropic Thunder is a surprisingly conventional production. The film's sprawling satire generally hits its targets in familiar places – actors are indulgent/neurotic/stupid, directors are pretentious/clueless, agents are venal and producers are angry blowhards with dollar signs in their eyes. It's nothing new, in other words, and the film's only truly transgressive act probably lies in the casting of Robert Downey Jr, whose Kirk Lazarus is such a dedicated method actor ("I don't drop character 'till the DVD commentary") he has undergone a skin colouration process to portray the platoon's black soldier. Blackface is always dodgy ground for a comic film, but Tropic Thunder makes it work with some careful writing, the astute casting of Brandon T Jackson – who acts as a mouthpiece for any criticisms of this stunt – and the brilliant performance from Downey Jr. The idea is not to poke fun at blackface but to send up the self-importance of actors who go to extreme lengths for a role, and Downey Jr's portrayal plays on his character's arrogance and lack of self-awareness as he spouts such idiotic lines as "I don't read the script, the script reads me".

Stiller, who co-wrote the film with Justin Theroux and Etan Coen, can't find anything half as interesting for the rest of the cast to do, though. Jack Black brings plenty of energy to the picture but he has nowhere to put it, and Stiller himself is surprisingly dull in the role of Tugg Speedman; his muscles are impressively shaped but he falls too often into the kind of "Blue Steel" staring that was more fun in Zoolander. After the first hour you've seen everything he's got, and the film similarly slips away from its moorings as it progresses, repeating gags and ideas rather than expanding on them. One of the picture's funniest interludes features a film called Simple Jack, in which Speedman made a disastrous attempt to gain credibility by playing a retarded farmhand, and it acts as a sharp dig at the kind of shamelessly manipulative disability roles that actors have taken on in the desperate grasp for Academy Award glory. Downey Jr's Lazarus has a hilarious speech in which he explains to Speedman where he went wrong with the role ("You went full retard, man. Never go full retard"), but after all of the juice has been wrung out of this joke, Stiller has Speedman recreating scenes from Simple Jack late in the film. Much of Tropic Thunder's second half hits the same beats repeatedly, and it ultimately outstays its welcome.

It would be completely disingenuous to say Tropic Thunder isn't funny, I found parts of it absolutely hysterical, but the biggest laughs for me came from exchanges of dialogue between characters rather than the bigger, flashier bits, and the film leans more towards the latter in its second half. I always found myself expecting the film to be a little funnier, a little more inventive, but instead it became an explosive, borderline incoherent spectacle, and the whole thing really careens off the rails in its final ten minutes.
Tropic Thunder is not a great satire – Stiller nibbles rather than bites the hand that feeds him – and it's too messily inconsistent to be either a great comedy or a great war movie, but I found it compulsively watchable all the same. John Toll's lush cinematography gives it the feel of a true Vietnam epic, and Downey Jr is a constant delight, but there is one other performance that really stands out. Under heavy makeup, Tom Cruise makes an uncredited appearance to play the fat, balding, aggressive producer Les Grossman, and while it's wonderful to see this actor cut loose in a way he hasn't since Magnolia, it's disappointing to see how little the filmmakers do with this opportunity. Cruise is simply asked to shout obscenities and to dance in an embarrassing fashion, and his scenes stop being funny very quickly. Instead, I found myself cringing as his bizarre act dragged on, but his cameo also has a car crash-style quality that is weirdly compelling, and it seems to sum up my feelings about Tropic Thunder almost perfectly. It's both adventurous and juvenile, knowing and crass, and it doesn't know when to quit – and, for one reason or another, I couldn't take my eyes off it.