Comedies these days lack explosions and firearms, but Judd Apatow and Ben Stiller are on the job. Apatow's Pineapple Express and Stiller's Tropic Thunder, which have arrived in theaters during the dog days of August, are action-comedy hybrids that follow genre conventions even as they poke gentle fun at them. As a low-budget affair, Baghead, also in theaters, adds modestly-funded terror instead of top-dollar napalm to its comedy, but it too is a hybrid. Genres are back in vogue among hip young filmmakers, with rubrics so nice, they've followed them twice.
Very funny and very frivolous, Tropic Thunder is a big movie about making a big movie. Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and Jack Black star as actors shooting a Vietnam war film in the jungle. The film-within-the-film has a British director, played by Steve Coogan, who's in over his head, but the producer, played by Tom Cruise under heavy makeup, is turning the screws. He barks orders and spews invective over a video link from California, determined to whip this movie into the can. Desperate to comply, the emasculated director takes the radical step of 1) planting digital cameras in the jungle's trees and 2) dropping his stars in the middle of nowhere, with their costumes, fake guns, and a script outline. His last-ditch effort is to shoot their improvisations guerilla style.
The setup reads like the parody of a well-known piece of moviemaking folklore, one that's retold like a war story: the massive production beaten by the jungle. Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo are as famous for their schedule overruns, uncontrollable stars, and maniacal directors as they are for the final products. Consequently, their associated behind-the-scenes documentaries -- Hearts of Darkness about Coppola's adventure and Burden of Dreams about Herzog's -- are as fascinating as the films themselves, and maybe more.
But Tropic Thunder's satire isn't so lofty. It's down in the undergrowth, skewering certain Hollywood personality types using the folklore as a frame. Critics have collectively tied themselves into knots trying to measure how close the movie comes to crossing various lines of good taste, but more interesting than whether it causes offense is how carefully, or carelessly, Stiller and company navigate a minefield of stereotypes. They're walking on eggshells one minute and riding roughshod the next.
The first of the film's contentious edges, and the most obvious from the movie posters and trailers, is Downey's character. He plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor so steeped in the Method that he's undergone an operation to darken his skin, which allows him to play an African American in the Vietnam flick. Downey lowers his voice, affects an accent, and adopts the prickly attitude of someone who's lived a life under subtle racism. Downey himself, of course, is just using make-up -- a light coat of blackface, essentially -- and if he weren't so precise a performer, if he weren't making fun of someone for performing in blackface (surgical or not), he'd rightly be assailed. But in our age of layered irony, Sacha Baron Cohen can dress up as a sweet Kazakh to spew anti-Semitic rhetoric, and Downy -- in a softer turn matching the limited license of a white New Yorker -- can strut like Shaft and claim the Southern-bred knowledge of greens and crawfish. Minstrel shows laughed at black culture; Tropic Thunder laughs at the shallow appropriation of that culture.
Downy is fantastic throughout. He plays a character not doing a spot-on impersonation of a black man but doing a slightly exaggerated one, a bit too eager to use learned phrases, a bit too buoyant in his walk. The only thing that draws the inner Australian out of Kirk's shell is a joke made by a fellow actor at the expense of Crocodile Dundee, but even then he maintains the righteous indignation of Jesse Jackson. "Pump your breaks kid. That man's a national treasure... You're 'bout to cross some fuckin' line."
But the film's writers seem to lack confidence in the parody's inherent logic -- or at least in the audience's willingness to let that logic deflect their discomfort -- and have gone to great lengths to separate their own attitude from Kirk's. Another character, a genuine black man named Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson), repeatedly calls Kirk on the carpet for the way he skims African American pop artifacts, for the way he quotes the Jeffersons theme song as if it were a poem by Langston Hughes, and for the way he opportunistically takes offense at statements that only resemble racial epithets. And the plot also requires Kirk to admit his confusion, confess that he doesn't know who he is, and hunt for his slippery soul.
Given the writers' awareness of the line that Downey is walking, and given the bumpers they've erected alongside to keep him in check, it's strange that a parallel story line is left relatively unprotected. Ben Stiller's character, action star Tugg Speedman who plays the lead actor in the Vietnam movie, needs a hit. He's coming off of a recent flop, an ill-fated bid for critical acceptance called Simple Jack in which he plays a mentally challenged character reminiscent of Sean Penn's character in I Am Sam. Tugg is proud of the performance, but Kirk -- with blunt language that has raised the ire of real-life disability associations nationwide -- dissects the performance and explains why it failed to win any Academy Awards.
Absurd as it is, Kirk is right: the Academy loves exceptional, brilliant disabilities (as in Rainman or My Left Foot), not debilitating ones. Tugg's Jack was simply simple.
The story about Tugg's failed efforts to be a serious actor make a smart counterpoint to Kirk's pseudo-black man, and it's also good character development. Kirk is Tugg's intellectual superior, so his artistic extremes are different, more nuanced, than Tugg's, even though they're similarly misguided.
Yet the film leaves Stiller twisting in the wind when he plays Jack, stuttering and buck-toothed, as if this were a less touchy topic than trucking in racial stereotypes. The logic of the parody, like the logic of Downey's, is clear, but the need for bumpers was proven by recent protests not from African American groups but from groups representing the disabled. They've been picketing outside some screenings of Tropic Thunder.
There's also no buffer around the foul-mouthed film producer, Les Grossman, but it may be unnecessary because of the weird internal dynamic brought to the role by the actor playing him, Tom Cruise.
In a role that some have termed anti-Semitic -- overstating the case -- Grossman is balding, bespectacled, beer-bellied, and prominently hirsute. He's also given to lewd dancing, and his scenes are both funny ha-ha and funny strange. They don't necessarily reveal a heretofore unknown humorous side of Tom Cruise because they're humorous in spite of the fact that Cruise seems hemmed in by his limited range and rigid style. His make-up is impressively realistic, and his character's last name is certainly descriptive, but Cruise isn't doing anything here that he didn't already do in Magnolia.
When Leslie Nielson appeared in Airplane! in 1980, his performance seemed plucked unchanged from his turn in The Poseidon Adventure. That was the spark of ... let's call it genius ... on the part of Airplane's writers. Poseidon was meant to be taken seriously, but context is everything, and by merely transplanting his stone cold face and melodramatic line readings into Airplane, Nielson was clearly poking fun at nobody but himself. Since Cruise has hidden himself behind a mask, he seems to be avoiding that brand of self-deprecation. It's fun to see Cruise looking ugly, but the implication is that he himself is not. Like Charlize Theron, who uglied up for Monster, this cinematic grotesquery is enabled by flattery.
Watching Cruise be Cruise alongside Tropic Thunder's other tomfoolery is especially fun because of Stiller's history of satirizing Cruise on his short-lived TV show in 1992. Stiller has long taken advantage of his own physical resemblance to mock Cruise's intensity, and he even seems to be doing it in Tropic Thunder. It's not Cruise but Stiller (as "Speedman") who glowers for the camera in a fake movie trailer and tries hard to cry on the battlefields of Vietnam (recalling not just Magnolia, where Cruise clapped and squeeze until tears flew from his eyes, but also War of the Worlds where, I've always suspected, big heavy tears were added in post-production).
This seems bold on Stiller's part -- as one of the film's producers, Stiller needs to keep Cruise happy -- but Cruise often seems willing to work with filmmakers who are tweaking his persona (Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut comes to mind). I'm just not sure if he sees it that way, and given his performance here, which is aimed at some big-time Jewish producer and not himself, I doubt he does.
The other characters have their moments, but few of them linger when the film is over. Jack Black plays a crude actor known for his movies about farting fatties. Black is a funny guy, but he's underutilized, and the clearest example of the script's over-reliance on his physical antics is that his biggest laughs come when his character is tied to a tree. Matthew McConaughey's airy, shallow mannerisms are well-suited to a vain agent who claims no higher calling than to insist upon the fulfillment of his client's rider: if it says he gets a TiVo on the set, by God he better have it.
After seeing Danny McBride previously in two large roles -- in The Foot Fist Way and Pineapple Express -- I'm afraid we may have experienced all he has to offer. But, then, I thought the same thing about Ricky Gervais in The Office, brilliant though he was, and the next thing I knew I was listening to his podcast and spewing beverages from my nose. In Tropic Thunder, McBride's ammunition-loving special effects man -- just another variant of his laughable tough guy -- wears thin in only a few minutes. If only they'd dispensed with his character as decisively as they did Steve Coogan's. Not that Coogan isn't a welcome presence, but the manner of his dismissal is one of the film's highlights.
Another highlight: the mock ads and trailers that open the film. They're integrated nicely into the multiplex experience, complete with ratings banners and real studio logos. I think I even saw someone at my screening head to the lobby to buy a can of Booty Sweat, only to return with a Coke, dejected. Buck up, lad; it's all the same corn syrup.
I do wish the Berlin Film Festival really awarded a coveted Crying Monkey. I can think of a deserving film or two.