Movie Review: Tropic Thunder

Caution: Spoilers everywhere.

Whatever. Tropic Thunder didn’t meet expectations. It’s not an abortion in a beard like Clone Wars, but it wimped out. For some reason—probably due to the red band trailer and months of exposure to incredibly positive buzz—many hoped Ben Stiller would redeem himself and categorically skewer the Ben Stiller who will soon make three more Night at the Museums, two more Fockers and four more Madagascars. And throw on another $100 million blockbuster where he plays the exfoliated clueless egomaniac who puckers and speaks fluent infant.

Actually, Tropic Thunder is that movie, it’s Zoolander in the jungle brush. Which would be fine, I guess. But it’s also an R-rated ensemble comedy that sheepishly attempts to parody Hollywood by staging a VietNam War movie in the vein of 1986′s Platoon and 1985′s First Blood Part II. And as parody and satire, Tropic Thunder is not only a disappointment, it’s in danger of collapsing on itself. Before seeing the film, I would not have labeled this talented group of actors “the Inglorious Bastards rumors of comedy,” but the line-up seemed aces. Pre-screening Example of Anticipation: “If Jack Black is skewering Eddie Murphy for making The Nutty Professor and Norbit, and his character is a raging heroin addict in an R-rated balls-out comedy, maybe Black will be really funny. I mean, he realizes that his 10-billion annoying paparazzi poses for Kung-Fun Panda were Eddie-esque right? Sure he does.” Instead, we get regular ole’ PG-13 Jack, who’s toned down and pushed to the side. When his one-note junkie character finally comes upon a glistening mound of heroin—the only thing he cares about in the film—he ultimately and inexplicably walks away from it. But earlier, his character Ozzied a live bat for a lil’ taste. Huh? Did Stiller and Black suddenly pick up a moral compass?

As a director and writer, Stiller veers away from the numerous Afghanistan and Iraq War films that Hollywood has churned out with an angry fist resembling Oscar’s gavel. Too soon? No way. But it’s too damn late for  “un-PC” white/black jokes referencing Benson and The Jeffersons. When I finally clued in to where this film’s comedy was going, I half-expected Robert Downey Jr. to say “What’chu talkin’ about, Willis?” Thankfully RDJ delivers steady laughs throughout, but his performance—which has left thousands of white journalists writhing with carpal tunnel— is no riskier or enlightening than C. Thomas Howell’s in Soul Man, and maybe less so. Note: Uh oh, this comparison was one of Downey Jr.’s fears.

We need to add heated discourse over RDJ’s performance to Stuff White People Like, along with Tom Cruise‘s hip hop posturing, but more on that overripe cameo in a second.

Along with “what you mean, ‘you people’?” racial jokes, Tropic Thunder offers up a Crocodile Dundee Australian joke in 2008. Score (for Disaster Movie, which is also where Simple Jack belongs)! We’re also served token gay jokes involving Lance Bass. And exhausted jokes about rap music’s commercialism via Booty Juice energy drinks and anthems like “I Love the Pussy” (which is actually tame by today’s standards).  Any Given Sunday‘s Willie Beaman epitomized rap’s sad cultural state almost 10 years ago. Since then, R. Kelly and Lil’ Wayne have turned rap and R&B into genius caricature fit for straight jackets. Films can’t parody this development, it’s simply too weird. So, Tropic Thunder ostensibly takes shots at the moderately less popular rapper, Ludacris, via Brandon T. Jackson‘s misogynistic Alpa Chino (who turns out to be gay, swing). But we’re also expected to laugh at Tom Cruise, who imitates a cliche rapper like Ludacris by shouting “dick in your ass!”, “playaaaa!” and dances to Ludacris’s “Get Back.” But he’s an old white Jewish guy, so it’s funny. There’s no bite to justify the parody’s incest. Tropic Thunder‘s snarky insider missiles are Photoshopped. I mean, Matthew McConaughey drops by to play a Hollywood doosh bag. Up next for Matt? Surfer, Dooshbag. Tropic Thunder is not a mainstream The Player. In Altman’s classic, the slithery house of mirrors that is Tinseltown and all of its superficiality and guilt were fair game, and the participants, insiders, and viewers knew it and loved it.

What’s also strange is this trend where comedies attempt to flip the action genre on its head and laugh at it in a post-modern way, yet fail to be as entertaining as many of the action films—exceedingly rare in the marketplace, anyhow—they’re lampooning. To me, this new genre feels like a cinematic identity crisis, a place holder for entertainment, instead of creating something new. Hot Fuzz is arguably the champion at this genre. Pineapple Express misfired, but was let off the hook, with some critics grasping it from a conceptual level. Disaster Movie is the bottom-feeder example. Tugg Speedman’s Scorcher franchise and his character in Tropic Thunder are at least partially inspired by Sylvester Stallone’s flamboyant success with the Rambo films, but this was all spoofed by Hot Shots way back in 1991.

I don’t want to talk about 2008′s Rambo again on Slashfilm, but I think Stallone’s film is a more successful, ballsier and savvier parody for the current culture than this. Unlike Stiller and Cruise, Stallone has an accurate idea of why audiences like and dislike him in 2008 and working similarly as a director, actor and writer, he tapped and exploited these perceptions really well. His parody went the distance. He killed kids. Some of his film’s ultraviolence was supposed to be funny and entirely un-PC, and it was. Since it’s a comedy, Tropic Thunder is playing by looser rules, but the kids in this film live, even when they should die. The kids in this film also run drug rings and do really cheesy kung-fu for yuk-yuks in the third act. Tropic Thunder becomes a bad parody of itself: PG and PG-13 action-comedy dreck. You can no longer tell who has real ammo and who has fake ammo (another annoying thing you keep noticing), but it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to die. In its last minutes, the film is unfocused, boring and lacking ambition in a way that Platoon and even Rambo were not. I’d argue that Step Brothers was the exact opposite in its third act, which is why—however surprisingly, given its manchild tropes—it’s the comedy of the summer.

Of course, the requisite makeshift bridge blows up at the end. This would be the likely and agreeable action cliche to go out on if I was laughing with or at this movie, laughing at how hilarious all of these actors were together; not left wondering why Nick Nolte and Danny McBride were completely wasted. (Btw: A Driving Miss Daisy joke, McBride?) And then Tom Cruise dances to Ludacris again, as if he’s signaling the end of a movie summer, if only one last time. Alone in a room with his back to the screen, Cruise’s dance reminded me of Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, not sure why. Or maybe Dan Akroyd’s dance as the perverted hip hoppity judge in Nothing But Trouble. Ben Stiller and Jack Black should have joined Cruise for this odd send-off, but they had pointless sequels to make. Maybe they can lampoon them and themselves in Tropic Thunder 2.

6/10 (I actually liked this movie to a degree, mostly due to RDJ, who did what he could, I guess. But what if Iron Man 2 has Alf jokes? Justin Theroux, don’t go there.)

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