By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s So Unfunny About No Peace, No Love & No Understanding
Tropic Thunder was pretty much guaranteed to me. “This one is for real,” I was told by a trusted publicist.
I am not a fan, though I respect the cult status, of any of the Ben Stiller-directed films. As for his career in comedy, the last run of 5 is Heartbreak Kid – NO!, Night at The Museum – Mediocre, Madagascar – No, Meet The Fockers – Dusty & Babs only (loved the first film), Dodgeball – Mad Genius. The 5 before that is equally iffy (BAD – Envy, Starsky & Hutch, Duplex, PASSABLE – Along Came Polly, EXCELLENT – The Royal Tenenbaums). Before that, Stiller was one of the promising comedians in Hollywood.
The problem with putting a needy egomaniac in charge of a movie with a needy egomaniac at the center of it is that you get a character that will only humiliate itself in ways the actor is comfortable with. In other words, you will get a character trying really, really hard to be funny, but who never actually puts any skin in the game, even though the character is written as an asshole.
When that actor/director invites two uniquely talented actors to work by his side in the film, you get a different problem. You get a director who wants those guys to steal the show, ham it up, and run wild while you have an actor who doesn’t want to be upstaged… let’s not forget who the star really is!
Next, let’s look at taste level. It’s interesting that Roger Ebert took a shot at Step Brothers, which wallows in the adult-retard genre that Will Ferrell has been a leader of, supported by the Apatow machine… but Ferrell owns the very specific tonal sliver he works in. It seems that the Apatow might have pushed Will, who has been very successful keeping it weird but sweet, to go to that darker place with this variation on the same moron character. But Ebert cites Tropic Thunder as a film in which at least one profanity struck him funny while Step Brothers struck him as mean.
Tropic Thunder strikes me as the ultimate example of Stars Gone Wild. Let’s put aside that the commercial viability of movies about movies has always been iffy, no matter how good the movie. (See: Bowfinger. Really. See it now! See it again!) The premise for Tropic Thunder is funny. Selfish, obnoxious, spoiled people forced to face real pain for the first time… how will they respond?
We have seen similar ideas before during this summer… Iron Man, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock… even, in a way, Mamma Mia! and Speed Racer.
But none of the other movies have so reduced the central idea to nothing but that basis for an extended comedy sketch, often forgetting the central idea and simply trying to milk laughs out of any action that some very talented people can come up with.
I have to say, I was pushed right out of Tropic Thunder as soon as the blood became real and there was zero connection to any honest human response to it. And I never really came back.
Is the idea, for instance, of actors being, inside a story, being either praised or punished by real people – especially ethnics that the actors barely knew really existed as anything but servants before – for the vacuous nature of their earlier work is funny. (Avoiding spoilers here!) It’s not only funny. It’s a rich vein of humor and pathos and insight. For the most part, it is reduced in Tropic Thunder to a long-legged “retard” joke.
Even Downey, who is so game and always looking for subtle touches, is stuck playing one note for much of the film. You know the note… it’s in every ad. He’s a white guy in black face. Okay… funny idea. But is it really funny for more than two acts of a movie? Isn’t the idea of writing such an inherently flawed character to push that character’s buttons in different and interesting ways through the entire film? Isn’t having an actor of Downey’s quality an opportunity to do something really interesting? Or are you, as an audience, satisfied by that same joke told 10 different ways?
Jack Black gets the best of it here because he actually is given a clear motivation for his antics… heroin withdraw. I know… hysterical! But it’s something to play and something that can develop. But even there, the writing is so weak that Tropic Thunder is reduced, in Black’s case, to being exactly the kind of movie that it mocks in early scenes. Black’s character has become a star based on a Klumps-like series of comedies that get all of its laughs on fart jokes. It’s an unfair hit on Eddie Murphy, who has shown himself to be much more than prosthetics and farts even in his worst films, but satire is that way… cool. But what is the Jack Black character doing for most of the movie? Doing big, broad, self-humiliating gags, few of which are any more sophisticated than a fart joke.
But as I say… that’s the highlight of the movie… because at least he has motive.
The other highlight of the film is Tom Cruise in a bald wig and fat suit cursing a lot. Problem is, it’s a part that would have been rightly cut down to 5 minutes of the film (and likely played by Stiller) if Cruise wasn’t playing the role. The joke – like so much of the film – is a meta joke and not really a smart joke. You laugh because Tom Cruise says, “fuck,” because Tom Cruise is “FAT,” because Tom Cruise acts like a jerk. The fact that he gave an Oscar-worthy performance doing much the same thing, but exposing himself as an actor in a very real and emotional way in Magnolia, really puts this movie in its place.
However, looking past that, Cruise scores his laughs. He is performing under the fat and the balding head. It’s no more important a performance than Rob Schneider’s, “You can do it!” cameo in The Waterboy. But it’s very funny coming from Cruise.
Another feature are the bits establishing each of the three main characters’ history. But even there, a big part of what is funny is the “I can’t believe Universal and DreamWorks let themselves be mocked like that… what good sports!” That doesn’t make it not funny. But it is inside baseball that plays well with people who are inside, but somehow makes the work lazy, more self-amused than amusing… and while of better production quality than the side dished of Grindhouse, not nearly as earnest an effort of movie love.
There are other big laughs in the film. It’s not unlike many of the comedies around these days. You get 20 laughs in 100 minutes and audiences are satisfied, no matter how stupid of unconsidered everything around the laughs might be. That is what you call, fairly, damning with faint praise.
What made Tropic Thunder feel even less than just small is the size of the talent and budget involved. The movie would have been better at half the budget, with Stiller and Justin Theroux forced to actually write their way out of dead ends instead of simply blowing something up real good. The movie looks like it was shot on the old M*A*S*H* television sets. There are no more than a half dozen shots in the film – hello, 2nd unit! – that even needed the Hawaiian locations.
And not only does Stiller waste his main crew and Cruise, but he also wastes Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte, whose remarkable skills are reduced to sight gags in the movie. This is particularly true of Nolte, whose character could have been one of the great movie supporting roles in comedy history, but whose turns are simply thrown away as story points and not even developed enough to make any logical sense. Since Nolte is the driving reason for the entire movie, the fact that his motives for driving the story forward MAKE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE, all you can do is to scratch your head and wait for Jack Black to show us his ass again and do the wild eyes.
I’m beginning to think that 2008 will be remembered as a seminal moment in movie history. Is this the year that a new generation took over the box office and less became more than enough? Perhaps. I would consider – and will continue to consider – arguments that I have simply gotten too old to appreciate what the primary market for movies now want at the movies… but I honestly think I am not just holding onto old school filmmaking here. Yes, this film wants to be the next Caddyshack or Stripes or Ghostbusters. It has that swagger about it. But Ivan Reitman, who is every bit the visual mediocrity that Ben Stiller is, was working with better scripts and the discipline of forcing himself and the writers – surely with the help of actors who were both skilled as actors and often, as improvisers – to follow their story lines from start to finish… to make cameos truly special… to attach even the broadest gags to character and the central idea.
How easy it to imagine Caddyshack remade with Nick Nolte as Carl (the Bull Murray role), Downey in the Chevy Chase role, Stiller in the Ted Knight role, and Jack Black as The Rodney? Easy!
But if Stiller was directing, the Baby Ruth in the pool would be melting like diarrhea, the sex scene in the pool would somehow feature Downey taking The Girl from behind and getting a cramp and then farting and then shitting himself, the gopher would chew on Carl’s balls, the girls on “Rodney’s” boat would be naked and passing around dildos, and when the caddy kid almost gets caught with in the “Ted Knight” house and the girl, he would somehow get his penis slammed in a window.
Would that be funnier?
Would that be trying too hard?
Tropic Thunder is not so bad that it will end comedy as we know it. Heck, it may be one of the better comedies of the summer… but that too is damning with faint praise. It is easy to laugh your 20 laughs and walkout of Tropic Thunder with a shrug of the shoulders. With so much mediocrity out there, you can’t hatehatehate it. With so many insane budgets out there, you can’t just wag your finger at how absurdly expensive a film that looks so cheap was made for. With so much profanity out there, you can’t get too upset about how blandly unfunny licking real blood and guts out of the head of a man who has just been decapitated is.
But disappointed? Extremely.