Monday, August 18, 2008

In the Shit

It's hard even for a talented filmmaker to make a good movie, but I can only imagine the difficulties one might face in deliberately making a bad one. When indie auteur David Gordon Green signed on to direct Pineapple Express, did he have to work harder to tone down his arty impulses in staging this homage to hyperviolent 80s action-comedies? While Ben Stiller helmed Tropic Thunder (which he also co-wrote, with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen), did he risk burnout in order to capture the very kind of bloated excess that the movie is sending up? Would the finished product have been worth it if he had?

While completely different films -- stoner comedy and making-of-war-movie satire -- Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder both suffer from a fatal flaw: a lack of reason for existing. For me, Tropic Thunder has the stronger case. Stretches of the film had me considering a run for the exits, particularly when Stiller's main character, prestige-seeking actor Tugg Speedman, is captured by a Thai drug cartel and forced to re-enact his mentally impaired "Simple Jack" character (a misconceived earlier effort to win an Oscar) to the starstruck villagers. (I think Asians actually have the best reasons to feel offended here.) Yet offsetting the lows are about a dozen good parts for a crack ensemble cast, and not just the ones you've heard about. Livening up the proceedings are Jay Baruchel's low-key humor as the bespectacled minor actor in the troupe, Danny McBride's manic zeal as the film's special-effects man, Matthew McConaughey's lovelorn agent, and Nick Nolte's haggard Vietnam veteran. Stiller is disappointingly one-note in front of the camera (as is Jack Black's druggie, though the latter does some amusing 1940s-era G.I. vocals for his character within the movie), but he provides some decent staging from behind it, especially a deftly executed sight-gag involving a panda.

More prominently, Robert Downey, Jr. is indeed wonderful as Kirk Lazarus, the Russell Crowe-ish Australian method actor playing the lead black character in the Vietnam War movie within the movie. In Zodiac, Iron Man, and countless other films, Downey typically riffs a variation on his own persona; so it's startling here to see him completely immersed into two disparate characters (leading to the only poignant moment in the film, when he removes his makeup and wig and wonders aloud who he really is). As Les Grossman, the paunchy, gold-chained mogul in charge of the studio producing the movie, Tom Cruise's turn is jaw-dropping and more than a little disturbing. (He has largely escaped charges of anti-Semitism, but I wonder the reaction if Mel Gibson had played the part?) For better or worse, Cruise seems motivated by some kind of petty revenge; it's unclear what motivates Stiller. There's nothing wrong with a simple desire to make people laugh, but the scale, ambition and balls-out gall of this movie (in Zoolander, the only thing he offended was the government of Malaysia) suggest that he's after something more this time than falling back on his well-meaning Meet the Parents shtick. Unlike what some critics have written, I don't think Stiller needs to be more vicious, just more focused. Juicy targets abound in Tropic Thunder; too bad its writer-director-star often overshoots the mark.

Stiller once guest-starred on Freaks and Geeks, the beloved if short-lived 1999 TV series that spawned the current Judd Apatow comedy empire. Two of that series' regulars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, are the stars of Pineapple Express, playing a weed-user and -dealer who get involved with gun-toting baddies straight out of Cobra or Beverly Hills Cop II or any number of crummy 80s movies that the filmmakers were obviously weaned on (as was I). The difference here, being an Apatow production, touchy-feely male bonding supplies an ostensible undercurrent of emotion, only with more coyly homoerotic overtones than usual.

Unlike Tropic Thunder, Pineapple Express achieves all of its more modest objectives. It's consistently terrible, choc-a-bloc with gunplay and fistfights and chases and explosions that are at odds with the laid-back demeanor of the principals. (I realize that contrasting harmless potheads with graphic bloodshed is probably the point, but the latter is so loud and relentless that it smothers whatever affection initially earned by the former.) The best scene in Pineapple Express, a extended and ultimately irrelevant prologue about the U.S. government's secret investigation of "Item 9" (i.e., marijuana) staged by Green in the manner of a cheesy black-and-white sci-fi film, has an enjoyable rhythm. I also liked the work of Danny McBride (again) as a friend of Franco's whose bullet-riddled body refuses to go down. The rest of the cast is nowhere near the level of Tropic Thunder's. Rogen and Franco have an amusing Abbott-and-Costello banter early on that wears out quickly. The great supporting player Craig Robinson is wasted in a poorly conceived role as a hit man. Rosie Perez is effective as a corrupt cop, and it's good to see her again, even in yet another half-assedly written female role in the Apatovian universe. The main character in Freaks and Geeks, a bright yet somewhat adrift teenager played by Linda Cardellini, was a beautifully complex young woman. Time to open up the boys' club already, take down the "NO GIRLS ALLOWED" sign.

No comments: