Thursday, August 14, 2008

Summer Movies 8: Tropic Thunder

In case you hadn’t noticed, Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and Jack Black have been tirelessly promoting Tropic Thunder for the past few weeks. The trio even appeared on BET’s 106 & Park, where RDJ revealed that he used to go to school at 110th and Amsterdam (which is only notable because that’s my old neighborhood – represent!), Ben Stiller did some Awkward White Guy Dancing, and Jack Black ripped his pants in half and had to spend the rest of the live broadcast making us all glad he’s not a commando kind of guy. They’re on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly, Downey’s on this week’s Rolling Stone, and between them they’ve covered every talk outlet available on both coasts, with the wise exception of Wendy Williams. Which is why you really have to admire Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel. Because in the midst of all the Tropic sturm und drang centering around the big-name trio, those two stealth ninjas snuck in under the radar and stole the whole damned movie right out from under them.

But I’ll come back to them later. First, on a whole, the film is effing hilarious and has a great deal more heart than I ever could have guessed. Some industry outlets have wondered whether the humor is too “insider” to work on a mainstream level – the “movies about movies don’t do well at the box office” curse and all. While I don’t doubt that there were some jokes that would have been extra knee-slapping if I worked in the industry, it’s written in such a way that getting those jokes is just gravy poured atop all the easily accessible humor in the film. I think it’s as much of a send-up of the war movie genre, which we moviegoers are all familiar with to varying degrees, as it is the industry that makes them. I look at it like Animaniacs and the WB cartoons of yore, where parents would get the occasional sly joke that would fly over the heads of the kids, but the kids were still highly entertained by the rest of the antics.

It was beautifully filmed, well written, and tightly directed, but let’s be honest – Tropic Thunder is all about the actors, both in plot and as a movie. So let’s talk about the actors. As for the big three stars, they all do stellar jobs. I’m not normally a fan of Stiller, I find him a little to smug and smirky most of the time, but as Tugg Speedman he showed a nice amount of vulnerability and heart that had me rooting for him from the instant he looked into Tyra Banks’s eyes and said, childishly hopefully, “Someone said they were close to me?” The usual smugness wasn’t anywhere to be seen, which is ironic, because in directing/writing such a knockout movie, he finally has good reason to be smug. Similarly, Jack Black occasionally grates on my nerves, but here he’s actually fairly subdued in his wackiness. The character is crazy but believable, and quite funny. The darker side of doofiness suits him well. And Robert Downey Jr. is, as usual, top notch. He disappears into each role within his role, he nails every line and was able to make the audience bust up with just a look or gesture.

And then there’s Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel. As funny as Downey, Stiller, and Black were, Jackson and Baruchel absolutely stole every scene they were in. They were the movie’s straight men, the voices of sanity among their more wackadoodle compatriots. But unlike other straight men, they were not humorless grumps, no, they actually got some of the best zingers in, usually at the expense of the above-the-title stars. Jackson and Baruchel provided the grounding needed to keep the movie from getting too pleased with itself. It won’t be long before they’re the above-the-title stars of their own movies.

Of course, by law, any review of Thunder has to mention Tom Cruise. His stuff was funny, yes. Very funny. But it was one note, and that note got diluted by the second or third appearance. Still, funny. Because I knew it was Cruise under the makeup, I felt it was obvious that it was him, but as the credits rolled, the group behind me exclaimed, “Holy shit, that was Tom Cruise?!”

Knowing that Matthew McConaughey’s role was originally going to be played by Owen Wilson was interesting, as I often found myself picturing Wilson playing it throughout the movie, and you know what? It’s a seamless transition. It’s a little scary, actually. Wilson’s a little blonder, his nose is a little crookeder, and his nipples chafe less easily (at least, I assume chafey nipples are the reason for McConaughey’s pathological aversion to shirts), but otherwise, I can’t see any real difference between the two actors. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy their work – as a matter of fact, I actually do – but it’s still eerie.

Alas, the film doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test. There’s nary a woman in sight, save brief cameo appearances by actresses playing themselves. Even three of the four fake trailers are completely devoid of women. (Alpa Chino’s Booty Sweat commercial features two shakin’ female booties - yay?) It’s actually a little alarming.

Also, I do feel the film suffered from the overexposure. Take, for example, Batterdämmerung. Sure, The Dark Knight was superhyped, but before I saw the movie I hadn’t been exposed to a ton of clips, so it actually exceeded my expectations. Tropic Thunder, on the other hand, simply met my expectations. Which is no small feat, mind, since my expectations for Thunder were near astronomically high, but a lot of impact was dulled through repetition. There really wasn’t a lot in the film that I hadn’t already seen pieces of or read about. One of the funniest reveals should have been towards the end, when Stiller’s running across a bridge with a small child stabbing him in the neck, but that scene was already featured in the red-band trailer, so as soon as the kid makes his first appearance in the film, you know how he’s gonna play out. That’s always a problem when films have multiple trailers that use footage from the whole of the film instead of the traditional first-third-only. By the time you’ve seen a few different trailers and TV spots, you can basically piece together the whole movie. (Also, oddly, there were a fair amount of changes from the final cuts of scenes (babies become pandas, Portnoy rants at reporters longer) and inclusion of totally-cut-from-the-movie scenes (Speedman being tortured) in the primary trailer – I wonder how long ago and with how rough a cut they started piecing together the ads?)

Not that all the advertising for Thunder was bad. The viral video stands on its own as a hilarious work of art. And fans of the viral will be happy to note that “Carl” (whoever the hell he is – really Stiller’s nephew? an actor?) makes a brief appearance in the movie as Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey)’s son, first seen in a photo on his desk and at the very end with Peck on a plane. (Speaking of the end, no need to stay through the credits, there’s no tag scene to be had, which is surprising since this seems like exactly the kind of movie to include something like that. The credits do roll over a rap song peppered with lines from the movie, though.)

Overall, Tropic Thunder was a great movie, insanely well-acted, downright hilarious at times and surprisingly touching at other times. One of the better movies of 2008, definitely, and well worth your $10 as both a solid action movie and a solid comedy.

No comments: