Thursday, August 21, 2008
Tropic Thunder Redux (Or: Is Tom Cruise Really Being Self-Effacing?)
I'm skeptical that a movie where Jack Black's farting abilities play a pivotal role in the plot warrants much thought, but such is where I find myself a week after seeing Tropic Thunder. The collective response to Ben Stiller's wildly uneven satire has been very strange: weeks of controversy and accusations of racism and insensitivity leading up to its release; mostly positive reviews from critics; the weekend's top (if disappointing) box office; and now, hardly a peep of discussion. One would think that a movie that insults the somber intentions of war movies (and the siren call to Support Our Troops) as well as features a closeted gay rapper, Robert Downey, Jr. as a black man and Tom Cruise as a Jewish mogul would at the least get somebody's dander up after seeing the picture as much as the movie did beforehand. Is it the dog days of summer? Has blockbuster fatigue set in? Are people more interested in pennant races and the Olympics? Or are Stiller's targets so scattershot that nobody can focus their ire on any one of them?
I think my own initial review, where I awkwardly lumped in the film with the tepid and inferior Pineapple Express, was too dismissive. I wouldn't go so far as to hail Tropic Thunder as "an imperfect work of genius," as Stephanie Zacharek did in one of her patented half-insightful, half-cringeworthy gush-fests, I'm more aligned with Wesley Morris in feeling that the movie has a surreal power that sticks with you -- more than one might expect from a comedy. That alone is worthy of a reappraisal.
Tropic Thunder begins even before the film proper, with a trio of fake trailers and one fake commercial that are as deliberately grating as the real deals are. The trailers introduce the three principals in their respective creative milieux: action-star Tugg Speedman (Stiller); flatulent comic Jeff Portnoy (Black), and Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey); the commercial, for a drink named "Booty Sweat," features hip-hop artist Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Immediately following the Dreamworks logo and right before the opening credits, we hear "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte) in raspy deadpan voiceover. We come to learn that Tayback is the author of a book called, appropriately, Tropic Thunder, purported to be about his experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War; in his voiceover, Tayback dryly lists an amusing string of statistics comparing Vietnam vets to books written about the war, concluding with, "This movie is about one of those books."
In actuality, Tropic Thunder -- Stiller's movie, the one we're watching onscreen -- is really about actors, specifically the tension between the desire for award-winning acclaim and the craven impulse to remain within their comfort zones. Speedman's previous stab at seriousness, as a mentally challenged farm boy in Simple Jack, was a notorious debacle; somewhat more in his element in a war film, he's still outclassed by the chameleonlike Lazarus who steps on Speedman's lines and is able to cry on cue. However, Lazarus's metamorphosis into his own idea of an African-American offends Alpha Chino, who calls out Lazarus on his stereotypical grunts and jive. Meanwhile, Portnoy, while also desperate to be taken seriously as an actor (Black utters some amusing WWII-era elocution for his tubby character during the filming of the Vietnam scenes), is also struggling with drug addiction. When all of these actors clash on-set, the neophyte director (Steve Coogan), overbudget and under pressure, decides to drop the spoiled ensemble in the jungle away from their cell phones and Tivos and film them on the fly.
It's a nifty idea for a satire, a jab at the reported behind-the-scenes making of Saving Private Ryan (a film so "authentic" about war that it features American GIs taking Omaha Beach in approximately twenty minutes). Unfortunately, Stiller as director and co-screenwriter doesn't seem to know where to go with it; Stiller the actor is even more limited. Perhaps out of habit, he initially goes the doofus route, playing Speedman as a dope who thinks their bloody encounters with Thai drugrunners in the jungle are all part of the guerrilla filmmaking experience. This is then dropped once he is captured and brought to a village run by a chainsmoking prepubescent (Brandon Soo Hoo) who forces Speedman to perform a far-off-Broadway production of Simple Jack, the only movie any of the villagers have seen. This is the part where I felt the urge to bolt: I get the sense that Stiller has a vague notion of sending up the cliche of Asians as stock villains in war movies; but there's no extra layer to the satire, no "flip" that pulls the rug out from under our expectations.
He would be in hot water with the Kirk Lazarus storyline too, were Downey not around to inhabit it. Always the lightest and most nimble of performers, Downey portrays Lazarus as Russell Crowe without the scary outbursts, a multiple Oscar winner who has to go to increasingly ridiculous lengths to challenge himself. ("I stay in character all the way up to the DVD commentary," he informs the rest of the cast.) What is remarkable about Downey's performance is that he himself as an actor is far removed from the Method, opting instead to spin endless variations on his own persona. In Tropic Thunder, the Robert Downey, Jr. we know vanishes into character so completely that you often forget it's him. Late in the movie, forced to confront his own illusion, Lazarus pulls off his wig and wonders aloud who he really is. It's the movie's one poignant moment; like Dustin Hoffman's Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, Downey pulls it off because his black character, cliches and all, has become more real than the actor portraying him.
For all this, there is probably not enough screentime for Downey, Black and Stiller to coexist. (Jackson doesn't register as well as he should either.) Beyond the fake trailers, there's very little to learn about any of these characters, and a lot of comic possibilities (Lazarus's "research," for example) go by the wayside. Fortunately, Tropic Thunder boasts an eager and resourceful supporting cast. I have already praised a pair of Apatow alumni, Jay Baruchel (from Knocked Up) and Danny McBride (the best thing in Pineapple Express), as well as two major stars in extended cameos. One of them, Matthew McConaughey, offers a jolt of energy as Speedman's agent Rick Peck, who cleans up Speedman's messes while harboring a not-so-secret crush on him. At first seeming largely irrelevant to the plot, Peck gets more involved as it goes along. It's a funny irony that a Hollywood agent proves to be the sweetest, most selfless character in the movie.
Tom Cruise's turn is a different beast entirely. Cruise plays Les Grossman, the screamingly profane head of the studio footing the bill for the Tropic Thunder movie-within-movie. Stiller introduces him ingeniously, in a scene where via videoconference he orders an anonymous crewman to punch his hapless director in the face. Later on we meet Grossman in the gaudy flesh: bald, bearded, bespectacled, hairy-chested, with burly prosthetic forearms and a fat-suit that works precisely because it's just real enough . Cruise and Stiller aren't aiming for broad physicality, like Eddie Murphy in the Nutty Professor movies; but the character is over-the-top all the same, a Harvey Weinstein-type blowhard undaunted by the Thai drug lords holding Speedman for ransom.
It's a memorable, galvanizing performance from an actor not known for being funny; it also makes a neat irony that he's doing it for Ben Stiller, who used to send-up Cruise's vapid narcissism with cutting accuracy. Still, I have to question some critics who have sidestepped the anti-Semitism of the role: if it were Mel Gibson kissing a gold chain while doing a hip-hop dance, the uproar would be deafening. Moreover, quite a few reviews have implied that Cruise is being self-deprecating, or is tapping into an unappealing facet of his own personality, as he did in Magnolia. I don't see it. Cruise is clearly relishing some kind of revenge against the suits who now believe (inaccurately, I think) that he's all washed up. His key monologue comes when Grossman tells Peck that Speedman is a "red dwarf," a dying star who can no longer carry an action movie. That Grossman is ultimately proven wrong (in the film's coda, Speedman wins Best Actor and the movie is a whopping success) shows that Cruise is being as vain here as he was in his teeth-flashing Austin Powers cameo a few years back. It speaks volumes about our celebrity culture that the sight of Tom Cruise appearing grotesque is admired for its "bravery." (I thought Cruise did riskier work in Collateral, inverting his charisma into a murderous hit-man.) False courage is a perennial theme for Stiller, and Tropic Thunder scores some big laughs on the subject; but ultimately it goes deeper than he's willing to follow.