When it comes to penning movie reviews around here, I tend to find writing about comedies the most difficult. (See, for example, my original mulligan on Borat.) For one, it’s hard to quantify exactly what makes a picture *funny*, and often what one person finds uproarious, another finds on the wrong side of lame. (Although I’m sure all right-thinking people can agree on the merits of The Big Lebowski.) For another, comedy more than any other genre seems dependent on one’s mood. (Case in point, Anchorman, which I saw in a funk and shrugged at, then caught later on TV and found quite amusing)
All of which is to say that, even more than usual, my thoughts on Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder should be taken with a grain of salt — Actual results may vary. For my part, even though both Stiller and Jack Black were basically doing their usual schtick, and Steve Coogan is pretty much wasted (in more ways than one), I found Thunder to be a decently funny experience last Wednesday. It’s got a bit of the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach, and some jokes — say, Tom Cruise gyrating in a Harvey Weinstein fat suit — end up getting run into the ground through overuse, Austin Powers-style. But, that being said, I had a good time. It helped that I’m a sucker for the sort of Hollywood inside-baseball humor that Thunder endlessly trafficks in. (IMHO, that’s also the only redeemable thing about HBO’s otherwise aggravating Entourage.) And there are elements of it that just appealed to my funny bone — seeing Nick Nolte finally get all Chris Walken up on us, for example, or the funny-’cause-they’re-tired ‘Nam-era ditties (Creedence, Rolling Stone, Buffalo Springfield) interspersed throughout the flick. So, I’m not going to say it was the best film of the year or anything, but as a diverting and amusing morsel of late-summer fare, Tropic Thunder gets the job done…for me anyway.
The story, as you probably know, involves a behind-the-scenes look at an Apocalypse Now-level movie disaster deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. After a few wry trailers (the funniest and most dead-on being Satan’s Alley, although I’d have hated to be Eddie Murphy during The Fatties 2), we’re introduced to the gang on hand. There’s fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller, being Stiller), drug-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black, going for Farley/Belushi and ending up with Black), Aussie thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr, weirdly genius), hip-hop phenom Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, used mainly to cover Downey’s ass), and newbie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, late of the Apatow factory), all under the supervision of video director Damien Cockburn (Coogan). Once the film ends up a month behind schedule (three days into filming), the who’s-more-grizzled source material for this ‘Nam picture, Four-Leaf Tayback (Nolte), insists Cockburn bring his bevy of spoiled stars into “the s**t.” Well, things go wrong, of course. And, soon, stranded somewhere near the Laotian border without even a Tivo on hand, this cast of thespians — only some of whom seem to understand the trouble they’re in — must navigate and negotiate their way back to SoCal-style civilization…but not before ticking off the local drug cartel, living out the inexorable men-on-a-mission tropes, and, just possibly, making a decent 80’s-style actioner in the process.
The aspect of Tropic Thunder which *originally* was drawing the most heat is Downey, Jr.’s resurrection of one of Hollywood’s darker stains in its past, blackface. (Controversy has since moved on to the portrayal of mentally handicapped people in the film-within-the-film Simple Jack, which, to my mind, is patently absurd. Watch Forrest Gump or Rain Man again sometime and you should get the point.) At any rate, surprisingly given the poor taste involved in reviving minstrelsy in any form, I thought Downey and the writers actually pulled it off. This is mainly thanks to the incredulity of Jackson’s Alpa Chino to most of Downey’s racist tics, such as reveling in crawfish, gumbo, and the like. All in all, I’d say David Roediger should be proud: Downey and the Tropic Thunder team managed to make their blackface routine a comment about the enduring racist foibles of white people (and the supreme actorly ego of Russell Crowe-type Method men) more than anything else, and thus help to subvert black stereotypes by drawing attention to them. (Of course, one irony here, at least from Spike Lee’s perspective, is that Jackson’s “Alpa Chino/Booty Sweat” act could be construed as even more minstrel-ish than Downey’s role.) In any case, it was a high-wire tightrope act for Downey to pull off, and the fact that his performance has elicited so little controversy suggests how well he pulled it off. (In fact, the five minutes where Downey pretends to be Asian, and pretty much just chop-sockey’s it up rather embarrassingly, illustrates how badly this could’ve gone, and how much we’ve still got to work on.)