Monday, August 18, 2008

TROPIC THUNDER - worth seeing for the odd moment of genius

There are many problems with Ben Stiller’s new Hollywood spoof, TROPIC THUNDER. It’s over-long, too many of the jokes fall flat, and many of the main characters are under-written or just plain redundant. That said, TROPIC THUNDER does contain a handful of genuinely hilarious scenes that are, on balance, worth the price of admission.

The movie features three recognisable types of Hollywood actor – the action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller); the gross-out comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black); and the method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Junior). Each actor is insecure. The Sly Stallone-spoof Tugg Speedman is desperate to be seen as a real actor, hence his disastrous attempt to play a mentally disabled kid in an I AM SAM type movie called SIMPLE JACK. The Eddie Murphy-spoof, Jeff Portnoy, is upset that he’s only famous for farting on-screen, and consoles himself with Class A drugs. Finally, the Russell Crowe-spoof, Kirk Lazarus, goes so far into his method-acting that he can barely remember who he is any more.

The movie opens with all three actors filming a war movie in Vietnam that’s behind schedule thanks to their tantrums. Under pressure rookie director (Steve Coogan) takes them on a Werner Herzog style journey into the jungle, where they will face real fear and thus give good performances. Problem is, the gun-fire is real, as the actors stumble into the territory of drug war-lord.

The aim of the film is to poke fun at Hollywood actors, producers and agents, with their big egos and insecurities. In addition, the movie spoofs the shameless avarice that creates life-less franchises and paint-by-numbers genre movies as star-vehicles. Most famously, the movie spoofs actors who try to win awards by doing something apparently earnest and issues-based – such as method-acting their way to Oscar by playing a mentally disabled person or an ethnic minority character. This is all good stuff, and I profoundly disagree with anyone who thinks that the movie is being racist by having a character wear black-face, or that the movie is being offensive by having another character play a mentally disabled character.

TROPIC THUNDER succeeds when it proposes an intelligent satire on Hollywood excess. Robert Downey Junior is superb in his nuanced portrayal of a method actor so far under-cover he’s lost himself. The movie also succeeds in its sheer balls-out excess. I defy anyone not to rejoice in Tom Cruise’s cameo as foul-mouthed, angry studio producer, dancing Usher-style and tempting Tugg’s agent (Matthew McConaughey in a brilliant performance). Some of the physical humour also works brilliantly. There’s a scene where a small kid gets tossed off a bridge that’s desperately funny.

TROPIC THUNDER fails miserably when, for the majority of its run-time, it moves down a notch from satire into spoof. Spoof is all well and good, but it’s frightfully thin and one-note. In other words, you can laugh once at Jeff Portnoy needing a fix, or Tugg Speedman being a stupid ass, but you can’t laugh at it again and again for a near 2 hour run-time. In fact, you could’ve lost the Portnoy character altogether. The ancillary characters are also poorly sketched. Poor Danny McBride – so hysterical in PINEAPPLE EXPRESS – is wasted here. Steve Coogan is given no funny lines as the rookie director. Nick Nolte is given nothing to do as the Vietnam vet. And the two characters who act as foils to the three big egos are also given little to do. Jay Baruchel makes the most of his part but poor Brandon T Jackson only exists in the movie as insurance. His character is basically there to diffuse the tension of having Robert Downey Junior dressed in black-face. It’s like the film-makers thought – a lot of African-American people watching this are going to want to slap Downey Junior, so let’s just put an African-American character on screen and have him to do it for them.

TROPIC THUNDER is on release in the US and Russia. It opens later in August in Australia, Iceland, Mexico and Estonia. It opens in September in Argentina, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, the UK, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Norway and Spain. It opens in October in Belgium, France, Venezuela, Singapore and Italy. It opens in November in Egypt.

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