Tropic Thunder
Director: Ben Stiller. Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise, Brandon Soo Hoo, Reggie Lee, Trieu Tran, J. Thomas Chon, Jacob Chon, Maria Menounos, Tyra Banks, Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lance Bass. Screenplay: Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (based on an original screen story by Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux).

Photo © 2008 Dreamworks SKG/Red Hour Films
The first five or ten minutes of Tropic Thunder, in which the film introduces us to its three actor protagonists through preview trailers of their most recent projects, will almost certainly propel someone's very bad undergraduate essay about the rudiments of postmodernism. For now, at least, they proffer virtually all the fun to be found in Ben Stiller's desperate and disjointed comedy. After these early candy treats, including Jack Black's send-up of Eddie Murphy fatsuit farces and Robert Downey Jr.'s spoof of prestige historical drama, the rest of the movie is a strained mess in which Stiller, Downey, and Black are the vainglorious stars of a misbegotten Hollywood action movie (called Tropic Thunder) that is hemorrhaging money and inducing personal and financial misery on two continents. To recapture that elusive Edge, flailing director Steve Coogan and careworn Nick Nolte, a momentary hoot as the double-amputee Vietnam vet whose memoir has "inspired" the film, send their principals into the "real" jungle with "real" Vietnamese gunslingers and drug-runners shooting automatics and shoulder-launched rockets at them. Coogan himself blows up early when he steps on an old French colonial landmine, but the movie explodes at the same moment: the script has too few ideas about narcissistic and insecure actors and studio tyranny to keep the plot moving, and Stiller settles for that blend of vitriolic nastiness and broad buffoonery that I never thought he'd settle for way back in the days of The Ben Stiller Show and Reality Bites. Disability advocacy groups have been notoriously incensed by the movie's depiction of the Stiller character's opportunistic feint at scoring an Oscar by impersonating a "retard" in an ersatz heartwarmer called Simple Jack. While I won't steer any group away from its right to take umbrage, I actually think Stiller doesn't go far enough with this schtick: he lacks Downey's courage and creative chops at carving an extremely pointed and specific caricature while making eminently clear that the joke is about misguided and self-obsessed acting, not about an entire genre of films, much less an entire group of people. Downey, I should clarify, plays an Aussie actor who is not by any means Russell Crowe testing flaunting his virtuosity by playing his death-dealing soldier role in 70s-era blackface.

Stiller sucks at specifics; Simple Jack looks close to but also annoyingly far from the kinds of movies he clearly has in mind to ridicule, which is the real reason the joke doesn't work. His carelessness with detail and with following through on the precepts of his already-shaky material is also why the film-within-a-film conceit of Tropic Thunder never takes flight beyond some insiderish and decades-old swipes at scurrilous bosses and dipshit agents. In fact, none of the ostensible plot conflicts (the actors are lost, the actors realize they're in Real Shit, the Stiller character finds an admiring audience among his captors) yield any clarity, energy, or resonance whatsoever. The dramaturgy is as creaky and listless as Mamma Mia!'s, but significantly more expensive, asking its actors to repeat old tricks ad nauseum (which is even more tiresome than watching Mamma's cast expose brand-new weak spots in their repertoires), and shot through with a frankly disgusting use of its Asian characters that sits much worse than the blithe, incoherent sidelining of Meryl's Greek neighbors. Feel bad for the mentally disabled in the audience if you must, but I felt infinitely more pity for the Asian actors forced to come to work every day to play filthy, heroin-harvesting gunthugs who swill down our dumbest pop entertainments and torture us till we provide more. Someone at DreamWorks has guaranteed that Stiller won't actually show any of these "Vietnamese" being hurt or killed when their bridges explode and their camp is detonated, through some misplaced sense of delicacy that becomes its own form of distracting ostentation. As does the Unrecognizable™ Tom Cruise doing a tiresome variation on the mercenary monsters he trots out every few years in order to recapture one form or another of artistic or audience credibility—though I did enjoy his harebrained hip-hop choreography. Even lamer is the hopeless Matthew McConaughey, apparently not realizing that his deeply silly turn as Stiller's agent looks precisely like the performances he gives when he's really trying: same mouth hanging open in earnest confusion, same dilated pupils. How John Toll, the cinematographer of Braveheart and The Thin Red Line, wound up in cahoots with this chintzy gang is another sorry footnote in yet another chronicle of Hollywood spendthrift and misapplication of talent.

Tropic Thunder, full of punchlines about Milli Vanilli and Being There, stitches the tired cultural references of one generation to the utterly debased expectations of their heirs. Its smug air of self-congratulation for throwing slim ideas expediently together, rather than finessing its tricky material and erratic talents just a bit more, led me to envision throughout the movie the sweaty palms and chattering teeth of Stiller & Company somewhere in L.A., hoping that this witless lark might actually fly. With infantile masculinity running at such a premium in today's Hollywood, and earning such an irritatingly generous pass from many mainstream critics, the trick seems largely to have worked, to a gross of almost $100 million and a thriving word-of-mouth success. But you'll never convince me that this dunderheaded movie isn't superbad. Grade: D

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey, Jr.

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Cruise
Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey, Jr.

Other Awards:
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Ensemble Cast

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