Tropic Thunder is the last tent pole release of the summer 2008. Breathe it in, chippies. Even Punxatawney Phil could accurately predict the coming six weeks of cinematic misery, as the studios shovel their fetid remains into the gap between the blockbusters and the Oscar contenders (save for Burn after Reading in mid-September). Fortunately, the summer of 2008 goes out, not so much with a bang or even a whimper, but a nice whack — a thump, even. The great news about Tropic Thunder is that there are three and a half solid reasons for watching it. The unfortunate news, however, is that there are only three and a half solid reasons for watching it.
The first is obvious: Robert Downey, Jr. owns Tropic Thunder. A dude playing a dude disguised as another dude steals just about every second within every minute of every scene he is in. Even when he’s given mediocre material to work with, he transcends it while firmly maintaining a supporting role, so the shtick blessedly doesn’t get old and, assuming there’s not an unnecessary sequel, you can find comfort in the knowledge that Downey has created one of the great characters in comedic history (and there is no one, I’d argue, that could’ve come close to pulling it off as well as Downey — anybody else and it would’ve been laughable, over-the-top, and offensive, instead of silly, ridiculous and, in its implicit commentary on the hubris of white America and the egotism of actors, pretty insightful too).
The second reason: The premise, actually, is one of the few creative ideas to come down the studio pipeline in a very long time. It’s not a sequel, a remake, a comic-book adaptation, a one-note comedy that revolves around a sport or talking dead people or a man stuck in a state of arrested development (neither is it a movie that requires intoxicants to fully appreciate). It’s also, remarkably, a smart comedy, and though the execution frequently falls flat, it’s still great to see someone trying something different. It doesn’t have quite the number of layers a Charlie Kaufmann script might, but it’s about as meta as you’re going to get in the middle of August.
The half reason: Jay Baruchel, in another stand-out performance that will likely be forgotten when all is said and done, as was his incredible performance in Million Dollar Baby (Baruchel is, after all, the forgotten member of the Apatow comedy troupe, and maybe it’s best that way, so we can still quietly enjoy him). Baruchel is good here particularly because he plays a version of himself, or at least a version of the perception we have of him, an important distinction I’ll explain shortly.
And the third reason: Tom motherfucking Cruise. I shit you not, folks — every time Tropic Thunder begins to drag, Ben Stiller (who co-wrote and directed) is smart enough to whip out the trick up his sleeve: a foul-mouth, power-hungry, hip-hop loving amalgamation of Harvey Weinstein, Michael Eisner, Sunner Redstone, and Tom Cruise himself. Downey’s scenes are situationally funny, but as the comedic counterpart to Frank T.J. Mackey, the Tom Cruise stuff is flat-out hilarious, in some part because of the material, but mostly because it’s Tom Cruise who has finally found his hidden sense of humor. We knew it was in there, buddy. We may never see it again, but thanks to a grand total of nine or ten minutes in Tropic Thunder, we’ll always know that it once existed. You could probably float a balloon on the hot air that must’ve filled the room when he finally pulled the half-popped corn cob out of his ass, but the result is one of the greatest glorified cameos I’ve ever witnessed.
Beyond that, and the ROFLMAWMTSD — Roll on the Floor Laughing My Ass off While Murdering Text-Speak Douchebags — fake trailers that open the film, Tropic Thunder is decidedly mediocre, but it’s hard to complain too much when 40% of a studio film is kick your grandma funny, while the other 60% is merely middling . It’s just that it really could have been a 100% comedic gem. The problem, mostly, is Ben Stiller himself, who even when writing his own potentially funny material, just doesn’t have it. He pulls out the same taking-it-five-steps too far brand of over-the-top hackneyism that Stiller has always traded in — that blind, doe-eyed naiveté and the overdone narcissism, a variation on his Derek Zoolander character. He has one speed, and it’s Floor It, no matter how many he brick walls has to run his head through or how many other actors’ performances he has to step all over. Likewise, Jack Black and his character are a blight on Tropic Thunder, and his plotline — a heroin-addicted actor stranded in the jungle without a hook-up — offers about a nanosecond of humor. Black is a major drag on the momentum that the movie frequently builds. Meanwhile, Matthew McConaughey, who has the other glorified cameo, is nearly as bad as Black, but he at least serves a purpose, which is to get Tom Cruise’s character involved.
But again, while conceding that Tropic Thunder is a good comedy — if you check your brain, summer movie escapism, great way to kill two hours, blah blah blah — my biggest gripe is in the way that Stiller and Co. created a brilliant comedic premise, offered up all the raw materials for a great Hollywood satire, and then half-assed it. The movie wants to make you believe that it’s skewering the movie industry, but in fact, it’s only satirizing the perception those in Hollywood believe we have of them. Instead of giving us war-movie caricatures — the Texan, the token black guy, the natural leader, the gunner, etc. — it gives us Hollywood caricatures — the drug addict, the egotistical action hero, the method actor, the geek, and, well, the token black guy. The only “inside baseball” we get here is the obvious notion that everyone in Hollywood is on coke and/or an insecure prima donna, and that studio executives are obsessed with the bottom line. No shit. Beyond that, Stiller seems afraid to take it too far; he’s made a movie within a movie where characters are lampooning other characters, but they never break the third wall and, in essence, makes fun of themselves or anything else besides the broad categories they believe we put all actors into.
Indeed, while some may have found the meta humor in George Clooney’s Oceans series a little too masturbatory, Tropic Thunder is like masturbation with a condom on — they want you to believe they’re making fun of themselves, but they’re insulated by the Hollywood caricatures they’ve sheathed themselves in. And when you’ve got Downey, McConaughey, Stiller, and Black in your cast, it seems a shame to pass up so many stellar opportunities for self-deprecation (there is not one awright, awright, for instance). Only Cruise plays on his own persona, which is what makes his scenes so tremendously funny (and no, I don’t like Cruise either — nobody does, but that doesn’t make the part any less inspired). Tropic Thunder is a fun movie, but if it had bared its fangs a little, it could’ve been great. But then again, it’s hard to expect a bunch of insecure prima donnas to take the sort of risks that might reflect on them poorly. Plus, there is that bottom line to think of.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife and son in Portland, Maine. Please leave a comment or send an email.How My Ass Taste?
Film | August 15, 2008 | Comments ()