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.

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.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Faves of Fanboys: A Cinematic Guide

As critics of The Dark Knight were recently reminded, running afoul of fanboys (and, in rarer cases, fangirls) can be a terribly awkward experience. Possessed with inflamed Bronte-esque passions, an accountant's hyperattentiveness to detail, and a mafiaso's resentment toward the slightest inkling of disrespect or betrayal, the fanboy can be either your best friend or your worst nightmare, quick with a pat on the back and even quicker with a shiv to the heart. (If they weren't strictly virtual, that is, and could come anywhere near your back or your heart.) The fanboy frequently works alone, though may also join forces with others when in the midst of a humiliating verbal smackdown. Knowing the potential targets of their obsessions is necessary for online survival. While comic-book movies are an obvious target (and you will incur their wrath faster than the Joker with a pencil by employing the term "comic book"), lesser-known films and the auteurs behind them have surprisingly vocal bases as well. Contrary to popular myth, although fanboys and professional critics often see themselves as archnemeses, the two factions are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to film directors, I have learned to tread lightly around the following icons:

1. Brian De Palma
Cinematic Style: smooth, showoffy, sleazy.
Target Demographic: Paulettes, film school geeks, the French.
Fans/Apologists: Armond White (pre-Redacted), Charles Taylor, Stephanie Zacharek, Keith Uhlich, Matt Zoller Seitz.
Critics/Naysayers: Mike Clark, feminists, me.
Most Worshipped Films: Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, The Untouchables.
Tests of Faith: Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Quotable: "It can be said with certainty that any reviewer that pans (Mission to Mars) does not understand movies, let alone like them." -- the ever-magnanimous Armond White.

2. Terrence Malick
Cinematic Style: nature hike.
Target Demographic: film school geeks, aging hippies, bird-watchers, tree-huggers.
Fans/Apologists: Armond White, Matt Zoller Seitz, Keith Uhlich, N.P. Thompson.
Critics/Naysayers: the Paulettes (sans White), Odienator.
Most Worshipped Films: Days of Heaven, The New World.
Tests of Faith: none, or all, take your pick.
Quotable: "Terrence Malick never met a leaf he didn't like." -- Charles Taylor, quoting another viewer in his review of The Thin Red Line.

3. Tim Burton
Cinematic Style: black.
Target Demographic: film school geeks, embalmers, morticians.
Fans/Apologists: the Slant boys.
Critics/Naysayers: N.P. Thompson, me.
Most Worshipped Film: probably Ed Wood, though others have their admirers.
Test of Faith: probably Planet of the Apes, though others have their detractors.
Quotable: "And so (Tim Burton) wanted to make a Superman movie....preferably one where Superman had scissors for hands." -- Kevin Smith.

4. Steven Spielberg
Cinematic Style: visceral, visually confident, emotionally insecure.
Target Demographic: The Greatest Generation, Oscar voters.
Fans/Apologists: Armond White is his constant. Others float in and out.
Critics/Naysayers: Many float in and out.
Most Worshipped Films: E.T., Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan.
Tests of Faith: 1941, Hook, Indy IV.
Quotable: "Spielberg turned claptrap into a reconsideration of what tickled America’s sense of international sovereignty; non-thinking adolescent viewers (of all ages) could thrill to the can-do effrontery." -- from Armond's latest mash-note, his review of Indy IV. (No, I don't get it either.)

5. George Lucas
Cinematic Style: incompetent.
Target Demographic: kids, illiterati.
Fans/Apologists: Roger Ebert.
Critics/Naysayers: Too many to count.
Most Worshipped Film: The Phantom Menace (before its release)
Test of Faith: The Phantom Menace (after its release)
Quotable: "Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith. It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other, but to George Lucas it is a name that trumpets evil." -- Anthony Lane, reviewing Revenge of the Sith.

6. M. Night Shyamalan
Cinematic Style: Methodical, slow, mesmeric, tin-eared.
Target Demographic: New Age types, evangelicals.
Fans/Apologists: M. Night Shyamalan.
Critics/Naysayers: Originally just me, now increasing in numbers daily.
Most Worshipped Film: The Sixth Sense.
Tests of Faith: The Village, The Lady in the Water, The Happening.
Quotable: "That's not to say The Village looks cheap -- it must have cost plenty of dough, particularly considering Shyamalan's inexplicable prestige. And there's no doubt about it: His movies make money. Shyamalan has got the magic rocks all right. Too bad they're all in his head." -- Stephanie Zacharek.

7. Wes Anderson
Cinematic Style: Pop-up book.
Target Demographic: Collectors of ephemera.
Fans/Apologists: Armond White, Kent Jones.
Critics/Naysayers: Paulettes, Fernando Croce, Odienator.
Most Worshipped Films: Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums.
Test of Faith: The Life Aquatic.
Quotable: "Give Wes Anderson credit for hygiene: The deeper he crawls up his own ass, the cleaner his movies become." -- Fernando Croce, reviewing The Darjeeling Limited.

8. Paul Thomas Anderson
Cinematic Style: overheated, emotional.
Target Demographic: film school geeks, manic depressives.
Fans/Apologists: Fernando Croce, David Edelstein, me.
Critics/Naysayers: N.P. Thompson, Armond White, Odienator.
Most Worshipped Films: There Will Be Blood, Magnolia.
Test of Faith: Magnolia.
Quotable: "His fanboys call him 'P.T. Anderson' because it evokes another P.T.: P.T. Barnum. He said 'There's a sucker born every minute.' I think Anderson's counting on it with this film, his most empty film ever." -- Odienator, commenting on Ed Copeland's review of There Will Be Blood.

(UPDATED: to include the following)

9. Quentin Tarantino
Cinematic Style: formal, leisurely, overly verbose.
Target Demographic: film school geeks, pop culture fanatics.
Fans/Apologists: Slant, David Edelstein, Owen Gleiberman, me.
Critics/Naysayers: Armond White, Matt Zoller Seitz, David Denby.
Most Worshipped Films: Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs.
Test of Faith: for some, Death Proof.
Quotable: "The pop encyclopedist and video-store genius has become a megalomaniac, and the exhilarating filmmaker he might have been is disappearing fast." -- David Denby, reviewing Kill Bill Vol. 2.

10. David Cronenberg
Cinematic Style: autopsy.
Target Demographic: medical examiners.
Fans/Apologists: they're out there somewhere.
Critics/Naysayers: ditto.
Most Worshipped Films: A History of Violence, The Fly.
Tests of Faith: M. Butterfly, Cannonball Run 3-D.
Quotable: Nothing interesting has ever been written or said about David Cronenberg.

11. David Lynch
Cinematic Style: "dreamlike" (an oft-repeated cliche).
Target Demographic: film school geeks, writers for Cineaste, small-town folk whose friendly smiles hide dark secrets.
Fans/Apologists: the Paulettes, the Slant guys.
Critics/Naysayers: N.P. Thompson, dwarves.
Most Worshipped Films: Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr.
Tests of Faith: Dune, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me Down to the Ice Cream Social for a Cherry Coke.
Quotable: "Have you ever had a dream with a dwarf in it? Do you know anyone who's had a dream with a dwarf in it? No! I don't even have dreams with dwarves in them. The only place I've seen dwarves in dreams is in stupid movies like this! 'Oh make it weird, put a dwarf in it!' Everyone will go 'Woah, this must be a fuckin' dream, there's a fuckin' dwarf in it!' Well, I'm sick of it!" -- Peter Dinklage in Living in Oblivion