Monday, December 08, 2008

Tropic Thunder

One of the several virtues of Tropic Thunder (2008) is that it rarely falters or drags. Directed by Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of the lead actors, this film is about five Hollywood stars making a Vietnam war film. None of them served in or knows much about the conflict, other than what they have seen in other films. The novice director doesn't know much about Vietnam either, and his production rapidly sinks towards catastrophe, especially after his cameramen fail to record an expensive special effects sequence involving actual military jets. Thus when his technical advisor suggests that he take his actors deep into the jungle and make them think they are really in wartime conditions, he jumps at the chance to save the film. Unfortunately, as soon as he and his crew land in the jungle, and he finishes explaining to the actors what is about to happen, he steps on a land mine and is blown up. The actors think he has contrived to disappear, even after they discover his head, which they misrecognize as a prop.

Misrecognition is a major trope in this film. No one understands what anyone else is doing. The actors think their rifles are loaded with bullets, when in fact they are loaded with blanks. They think the guerillas who attack them with real guns and bullets are actors. Tropic Thunder alludes to virtually every other Vietnam film imaginable, from Platoon to Apocalypse Now to Forrest Gump to Who'll Stop the Rain to The Deerhunter to Rambo. By alluding to these films in a film that itself is about the making of a Hollywood war film, Tropic Thunder points out the significant differences between actual war and the films that portray war. It's also a deliberate and self-conscious study in cinematic intertextuality.

Which is not to say that Tropic Thunder is not funny. It is quite funny, and I often laughed. The film offers an array of characters who themselves are Hollywood stereotypes: the fading action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) who stars in films about fat people passing gas, the Brando-esque method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey) who becomes the characters he plays (in this case, since he is portraying an African American sergeant, he has his skin permanently dyed black), the macho young black actor with gender identity issues (his name is Alpa Chino—say it aloud—a joke that becomes funnier each time it's repeated), the young and intelligent teenage rising star Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) who is the only one of the cast who bothered to read the script. And then there is the technical advisor, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), one of four survivors of a disastrous battle in Vietnam decades before. His book is the basis of the movie the actors are filming. He has hooks where his hands are supposed to be, purportedly blown off in the battle, though we eventually learn that his hands are intact—the hooks are a prop, and he's a fraud.

Although Tropic Thunder never stops being funny, it does undergo at least one if not more than one transmutation. It begins as a film making fun of bumbling Hollywood actors trying to make a war film. When one of the cast members is captured by a group of drug smugglers (their boss is a 12-year old boy), the other cast members decide to rescue him. Then the film transmutes into a Rambo-esque rescue film. Yet the characters remain the same inept bumblers.

Films like this one—films that parody other films--are often one-note wonders. After the first twenty minutes or so, because the basic premise grows stale, the film does too. But in Tropic Thunder because of the hilarious characters, the effective script, the constant exploration in every possible way of improvising on the theme of a film about a film, this one never gets tiresome.

An interesting secondary role in the film is the Hollywood producer Les Grossman, played by a bald and semi-recognizable Tom Cruise. This portrayal is a vicious and even disturbing parody of a Hollywood producer willing to sacrifice human lives for financial gain. Clearly Stiller (and Cruise) had a real producer in mind. Cruise is fine in this role—it's not at all like the more sanitized, homogeneous, roles he has recently played. It reminded me of his portrayal as the radio sex counselor in Magnolia.

Tropic Thunder makes comedy out of the artifice and fakery of the film industry.

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