Monday, December 08, 2008


Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan
Director: Ben Stiller
Runtime: 107 min. / 121 min. (Unrated)
Rating: *****
Genre: Comedy, Action

        Spike Lee recently expressed his fears that his infamous spat with Clint Eastwood for the latter’s non-portrayal of black soldiers in his World War II films might have cost him a possible Oscar nomination for his all-black war drama Miracle at St. Anna. Of course, I would want to extend my defense on behalf of Eastwood for Letters of Iwo Jima, because, you see, it was kinda like supposed to be from the Japanese vantage point. Mr. Lee, a bit tough to insert there. Of course, it hasn’t been the only such case. Spielberg’s war tour de force Saving Private Ryan was similarly criticized by many sections for not including a black member. You know that obligatory black guy who hurls a lot of curses and gets whacked off somewhere in the middle, causing severe emotional stress to the white guy who always hated him but now considers him his only brother. From another mother. Yeah, that guy. Who says making a war film is easy?
        For that matter, who says making a film is easy? There’re sets swarming with people, with actors and a thousand contraptions. And if that wasn’t enough to fill the plate, there’re men interfering who know more about running a company than creating art. Negotiating your vision with them, and through them or unfortunately around them to create a film has to be considered a miracle. Ask Sergio Leone about Once Upon A Time in America. Ask Francis Ford Coppola about Apocalypse Now. Or for the sake of accessibility, ask Mathieu Kassovitz. You could just say the words – Babylon A.D. – and witness him go up in flames. Here are the words he chose to describe his experience of making the film, against Twentieth Century Fox –
"I'm very unhappy with the film. I never had a chance to do one scene the way it was written or the way I wanted it to be. The script wasn't respected. Bad producers, bad partners - it was a terrible experience. It's pure violence and stupidity... All the action scenes had a goal: They were supposed to be driven by either a metaphysical point of view or experience for the characters. Instead parts of the movie are like a bad episode of 24. I should have chosen a studio that has guts. Fox was just trying to get a PG-13 (rated) movie. I'm ready to go to war against them, but I can't because they don't give a s**t.”
Just felt the need to point out that this is a director talking about his own film. And just for the record, the film was trimmed to 93 min. with around 70 min. worth of the film being chopped out onto the cutting room floor. Sigh.
        The title of Tropic Thunder is derived from the film being made within, which is based on a Vietnam vet’s memoir about a top secret mission in 1969 to rescue Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback from a heavily guarded North Vietnamese Prison Camp. The director of the film within is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and he is a rookie handed the reins of this big-budgeted production. He is a Brit, and making this picture might end up being his worst nightmare. There’s fading action star of the Scorcher series Tugg Speedman (Stiller), whose last film Simple Jack, a tale of a retard who can talk to animals, was both a critical and commercial disaster. There’s Jeff Portnoy (Black), and he excels in fatty farty comedies. What’s more, he has a whole farty franchisee to himself, and his upcoming film is The Fatties: Fart 2. There’s rapper Alpa Chino (Jackson) in a supporting role, and you got to read his name out loud and hear what it sounds like. And there’s the biggest heavyweight on the set, five-time Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) known for his intense method performances, whose last film was Satan’s Alley. It is set in the sixteenth century, is about gay love, and features MTV best kiss award winner Tobey Maguire at the other end of the alley.
        And if that wasn’t enough, a $4 million explosion in the jungles of the remote Asian location is wasted because, believe it or not, the camera wasn’t even rolling. Five days into production, and the film is already one month behind schedule. Cockburn knows he is in trouble, but he doesn’t even have the faintest of idea what he’s dealing with here. The enormity of what is going to hit him is called media mogul Les Grossman, who is financing the project. It is played by somebody you know very well, and would have absolutely stolen the show had it not been for Downey Jr. if you intend to watch the film, I request you to not go seeking the name, and instead wait for him to appear. Believe me, it is worth it.
        Now, we are served all this information via four trailers, scenes from actual filming and an Access Hollywood news bit. Such is the premise of Tropic Thunder, a film which if I hurl against the last few years, surely has found me laughing the loudest and the hardest, and the most. Labeling it outrageously hilarious might turn out to be a cruel understatement. But there’s no other way of calling a riot other than to call it an absolute roaring riot. It is the kind of film that elicits laughs when you’re walking down the street, and subtle funny bits of it are still lingering inside you. It has been over a month since I saw it the first time, and I still manage to chuckle when I’m driving and remember a witty line or two. It lampoons everything in sight in Hollywood, its actors and their methods and their egos and their agents, its writers, its directors, its bosses and its awards. Its films, and its archetypes, and their pretensions and their accents. The general standard of its comedies. Often lampoon might be a wrong word for what the film does, and a big irreverent ‘shove it up’ might be a better description.
        Consider, Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, and his character Sgt. Osiris. And for a moment remember Charlton Heston from Touch of Evil, where they charcoaled him and asked him to be a Mexican. Now Lazarus is an Australian, and he is known to get right into the skin of his characters. So committed he is to his craft that he undergoes a surgery to temporarily pigment his skin to be dark so he can play the Negro his character is. He remains in character all the time, and not only till the wrapping up of production but right until the DVD commentary. God knows what alleys he sought to get into character for Satan’s Alley. He is the kind of actor who convinces himself he is the part he’s playing. Now this is a two-way joke, both a send up of Heston-esque casting (Hollywood actors faking Brit accents while playing Brits, or overplaying the Russians) and the self-important method actors. They don’t end the joke there. Alpa Chino is genuine black, and Lazarus’ over-playing obviously annoys him. Their face-off is one of the film’s many joys.
        The stroke of genius though is the casting of Downey Jr. for the part, who gives us simply the most hilarious character is ages. Someone right up there with Seller’s Group Capt. Mandrake (Dr. Strangelove), or Bhavani Shankar (Gol Mal). This one is for the history books, and it is a comic master work of facial expressions, accents and timing. He is so brilliant that when his black accent slips, it slips into an Australian accent. It is the kind of performance that alone is worth the two times the ticket price, not counting out the DVD on which it could be relished time and time again. I might go up in red hot flames myself declaring that the whole thing is big farce if he doesn’t get a Best Supporting Actor nod.
        Speaking of which, the Academy Awards aren’t spared either. Their utter predictability is put to the sword, so much so that Lazarus advices Speedman on why he ought to have eased on the pedal on the retarded Simple Jack. Dustin Hoffmann (Rain Man), and Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump) won but Sean Penn (I am Sam) lost. They both knew a secret which Penn didn’t, and neither did Speedman. Learn it for yourself. It is funny and an insightful observation.
        The movie has been co-written and directed by Ben Stiller himself, and being a comic actor he knows his way around them. He has always been the comedy genre’s Stallone, and just as the action star’s every major success has involved him being the underdog and smashed up guy, Stiller’s success has been made out of being the butt of the joke. One of the most remarkable things about being a comic actor is to summon the courage to be the embarrassment of the ensemble, and Stiller has a way of doing that without making us feel too bad for him. I learn from various interviews with the movie’s other stars, Downey Jr. and Black, that he is incredibly driven. It shows in the way he doesn’t play safe, but makes an all out assault on so many ends, and gloriously meets the challenge of the politically incorrect head-on. Landmark Vietnamese war films, and Saving Private Ryan are put through the shredder with great irreverence, and there’s a battle sequence right up front. The writing is funny, hilarious and subtle, pretty much all over the spectrum. Just when I thought the days of the funny comedy are long gone, they give me Pineapple Express and this one. God bless them, and if this doesn’t put Stiller on the map of the respectable, then God knows what will.
        Parodies do tickle the funny bone but for sure they do not boast of longevity. Satires do, but often they tend to be cleverer than actually being funny. I mean ha-ha funny. Tropic Thunder is both a consistently laugh out loud parody and a biting satire. And to my great surprise, it has got great heart too. It is courtesy the performances, one of the best this year from an ensemble cast, and you would find yourself rooting and caring for these guys even though there has been no obvious attempt towards that end, and the film is mostly involved in ripping apart the Hollywood system. What a triumph it is, and what a comic achievement, a film that ought to be watched at least a couple of times to get all the jokes. And then, you still might miss laughing on some, because you might end up marveling at the genius of Robert Downey Jr. in a role of infinite jest. I feel so bad for him now, as I remember the late Heath Ledger’s Joker. Downey Jr. is that good, and in a year without The Dark Knight, nobody would have dared to stop him.


Thomas Watson said...

Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up... he's got a knack for not taking himself too seriously

Thomas Watson said...

Tropic Thunder is both a consistently laugh out loud parody and a biting satire. And to my great surprise, it has got great heart too. It is courtesy the performances, one of the best this year from an ensemble cast, and you would find yourself rooting and caring for these guys even though there has been no obvious attempt towards that end, and the film is mostly involved in ripping apart the Hollywood system.