by Tony Dayoub
Read today's post (and its subsequent comment thread) on Glenn Kenny's movie blog, and you'll get a sense of how the rapidly waning days of the summer movie season can play tricks with a man's mind. It seems like with kids heading back to school, one of the most exciting Olympiads in recent memory, and the intimidating behemoth of The Dark Knight still looming large in multiplexes, studios have designated August as the dumping ground for their weakest films. In the last few weeks we've seen the release of the third Mummy movie (who cares), Pineapple Express (virtually unintelligible and not funny), and now Tropic Thunder, which I was really hoping would lift me out of the funk. But with flicks like this one, it's easy to see why Kenny is so downbeat on the state of cinema today.
The movie follows a film crew shooting a Vietnam war movie. After going over budget, the film's director (Steve Coogan) decides to shoot the film guerrilla-style. Dropping his group of actors in the perilous jungles of Burma, most of them realize the true danger they are in. But Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) remains blissfully unaware for much longer, focused instead on reinvigorating his declining career. With Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) and drug-addled comic star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) only slightly less confused than Speedman, hilarity should ensue. Co-written and directed by Stiller, Thunder spoofs action movies, war movies, Hollywood actors in particular, and the film industry in general.
It's this lack of focus that contributes to the idea that this is essentially an extended one-joke sketch that goes on for far too long. The dialogue is consistently witty. When Speedman tries to convince his fellow actors to go after the "Vietcongs", rapper/actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) replies, "It's Vietcong. The word is already plural. You wouldn't say 'Let's go after the Chineses.'" There are lots of amusing visual jokes also, like the faux trailers that open the movie, where we see Black's Portnoy starring in a Nutty Professor-like comedy where he plays multiple roles, titled The Fatties: Fart 2. There's even surprise cameos by some well-known actors of all stripes, including a substantial supporting role by Tom Cruise, as fat, balding, profane Hollywood producer, Les Grossman, that by turns can be seen as wildly raunchy or distinctly anti-semitic. But it strikes of an attempt to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. And halfway through the film, when you pat yourself on the back for catching the umpteenth reference to Apocalypse Now, you start realizing how repetitive the movie is becoming.
Concerned about references to the mentally challenged as "retards"? The real butt of the jokes are the dense action stars, like Speedman, whose insensitivity in using the term speaks to a certain lack of awareness. Downey's performance in blackface? Again, the target is not African Americans, but the well-known Method actors who like the character of Lazarus seem to increasingly be Australian. Is Cruise's depiction of Grossman an anti-semitic caricature? Maybe, or maybe it also speaks to a certain lack of awareness by the true-life action star. That would be funny.
But forget about whether you would support a movie that is generating so much controversy right now. Better to take a break, and enjoy the Olympics at home while awaiting the start of the fall season of art movies. The fact is that while Tropic Thunder would be okay for a rental on DVD, it can and should be skipped theatrically.