August 20, 2008

Tropic Thunder

Maggie and I saw the new comedy Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller's latest directorial endeavor.

The trailers didn't thrill me but when we were choosing movies I noticed that Rotten Tomatoes calculated a score in the 80's for this film, so it seemed safe to give it a shot. I was glad we did.

The film, while not the best comedy of the summer, was a clever skewering of Hollywood foibles and stereotypes. The premise of the film -- that a group of actors making a war film find themselves in real trouble -- is extremely thin and provides very little in the way of tension or interest. However, what it does provide is a backdrop for jokes about the fragile actor's psyche, the flashiness of action films, the tenuous relationship between docudramas and truth, studio greed, post-racial presumptuousness, Hollywood's penchant for using the misfortune of others, drug abuse and dependence, films that take themselves too seriously, Hollywood's use of of homosexuality... and the list goes on.

The film starts off with a number of comedic bangs at a pace impossible to sustain, presenting us with a few hilarious parody trailers featuring the stars of Tropic Thunder in their previous films. As the film progresses, it's peppered with comedic moments, mostly from Robert Downey Jr. as the black-faced method actor or Jack Black as the strung-out comedian. The pace does slow, and the film doesn't really hold together as a story. By the time it's completely fallen apart, however, it's delivering its final jokes and you're watching Tom Cruise do a funky-weird rap dance: an ode to excess studio dollars. The bling calls the tune.

If you've heard of this film, you've probably heard that it insensitively uses the word "retard" and that there were calls for a boycott. I believe that the people who called for the boycott missed the point of the film. The word is used by Downy Jr. giving advice to Ben Stiller's character, an action hero who is struggling in his efforts to become a serious actor. "Everybody knows you never go full retard" he warns, explaining the action hero's mistake. The phrase, which I found hilarious in context, was removed from movie posters because of complaints. Here are two actors, discussing just how to milk the audience's compassion for their benefit. The boycott not only misses the point, it illustrates the question. Is it more exploitive to use the word "retard" in a film, or is it more exploitive to make any sort of film about people with mental disabilities -- an actor using the equivalent of black-facing but for other groups of people? All the jokes must be viewed in the context of Hollywood's artificial world.

The New York Times review missed the point of the film in a different way. They complained that Stiller went over the top with the gore in the film, discussing the violent war scenes:

[...] the scene skews more yucky than yukky because Mr. Stiller has so little sense of modulation. He isn't content simply to decapitate a character, the way, say, Graham Chapman hacked limbs in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"; he also has to play with the stringy bits hanging from the bloodied neck. Mr. Stiller doesn't kill jokes: he stomps them to death.

If the violence was just supposed to be funny on its own, like an arm falling off the Black Knight in Holy Grail, that would have been sufficient. It would have come off as silly in the way a Mel Brooks movie is silly. But the film is obviously parodying Hollywood's penchant for over-the-top gore (seen in war films and even purportedly religious films, for chrissake!) and for trying too hard to look real, not just trying to hard to look violent.

It's that same sort of joke, in different forms, you get throughout the film. If you don't like that joke, you won't like the film. I did like it; I'd give it 3 out of 5 stars. It would be higher if it could sustain the times where the parody really "clicks."

Here's a promo Stiller, Black and Downey did for the MTV Movie Awards. Warning: violence. Also, has virtually nothing to do with the film. Instead, this is a parody of viral video ads.

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Posted by James at August 20, 2008 9:34 AM
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Thanks and very good...I will try and see this in the theaters.

Which means I will fail and get to see it on On Demand in a year or something like that.

Posted by: Bull at August 20, 2008 10:51 AM

That's about where I am these days. I've taken to just adding them to my Blockbuster queue as soon as they come out, because I rarely get to the theaters.

Posted by: briwei at August 20, 2008 11:51 AM

Bull, When you're retired and teaching high school physics (preferably next year, when K will take it for the first time), you can watch ALL THE MOVIES YOU WANT. You will not know what to do with yourself. :-)

Posted by: Maggie at August 20, 2008 12:00 PM

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