In last week’s review I bemoaned a worrisome trend. Over the past several months, more and more comedies from once dependable laugh masters have proven dismayingly mirth-free. Examples include the Judd Apatow-produced Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the Farrellys’ update of The Heartbreak Kid and the last two movies made by Will Ferrell. I regret to report that we now must add to that list. Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort is not the funniest film of the summer, as has been widely reported. It is not, for that matter, the funniest film of the month.
It may well be the year’s most overrated and misinterpreted. There seems to be an impression on the part of many reviewers, for example, that Tropic Thunder is an irreverent satire of the movie-making industry. This is something of a misconception. Its story does concern the making of a mega-budget war movie in the jungles of Southeast Asia and does center on the foibles of and squabbles among the five lead actors in its cast. But almost none of the picture’s observations about Hollywood culture transcend tired and perfunctory clichés: Actors are coddled egomaniacs. Agents are motivated by self-interest. Studio brass are greedy bullies who care more about making money than creating art. Not exactly breaking news.
Stiller plays an action star in the Chuck Norris tradition. His career is on the rocks, and he desperately needs a hit. Robert Downey Jr. is an Aussie Oscar winner in the Russell Crowe tradition. He’s so heavily into his Method approach that he has his skin surgically dyed to play the part of a black soldier. Brandon T. Jackson is a rapper-turned-actor in the Ice Cube tradition. He does not appreciate Downey’s impersonation. Jack Black is a bloated drug fiend in the Chris Farley tradition. He is completely wasted in the role. And I don’t mean high.
The fifth principal player is Jay Baruchel. You’ll recognize him as a member of the Apatow troupe, and I suppose he’s there to represent young Hollywood, although he’s not given a chance to do much of anything but look out of place. Through a confluence of strained plot developments, the actors are relocated from the set of the production into the actual jungle. They are led to believe cameras are hidden in trees wherever they may happen to go, along with sound equipment to record their every word and movement. In reality, they are lost in the middle of nowhere. At least until they cross paths with a drug lord and Stiller is taken prisoner by his army. The rest of the film follows the others as they vacillate between making a run for the airport and mounting a rescue with prop guns.
I must say there is not a lot of laugh-out-loud material in play here. Downey’s performance is the most energetic and entertaining, but even it is more curious than funny. He delivers the riff on actors courting Oscar attention by playing cognitively impaired characters (à la Rain Man, Forrest Gump, I Am Sam, etc.) that has stirred up controversy. It’s unfortunate the scene’s dialogue is so over-the-top insensitive, because it’s actually the closest Stiller and cowriters Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen come to biting showbiz commentary. Otherwise, the movie’s humor seldom rises above the level of gay jokes and fart gags.
And forget everything you may have heard about Tom Cruise using his turn here as a loutish studio boss to resurrect his career or refurbish his image. Hidden under a bald cap and inside a fat suit, he delivers a parody of Tinseltown power that contributes little to the picture besides novelty value. His character’s like something that wandered off the set of a boisterous, braindead Klump sequel.
The primary misconception, it seems to me, is that Tropic Thunder falls into the category of film industry satires like The Player, when in fact it’s assembled after the fashion of genre spoofs such as Scary Movie, Date Movie and Epic Movie. In interviews, Stiller has described it as his take on Vietnam War movies, and throughout the film you can spot comic references to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter and others. In my opinion, this is the context in which the filmmaker’s latest should properly be viewed. Doing so doesn’t make the movie any funnier, but at least it puts it in appropriate perspective. Stiller hasn’t failed to meet artistic standards set by the likes of Robert Altman. He’s failed to measure up to the Wayans.