Heart of dankness
Hollywood comedy isn't exactly doing well when the most commercially successful is a Disney pirate franchise and the most critically praised are the tepid, safe-as-houses fantasies of Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin; Knocked Up). Hats off to Ben Stiller then, for making what easily zooms to the head of the mainstream class as the funniest American-made movie of the year (I know I know, year's not over yet--but these are the "ber" months, when solemn fare hopeful of winning The Annual Golden Doorstop are being released For Your Consideration). In a time when people are craving gigantic CGI effects or digital animation or pictures catering to the so-called sensitive side of fortysomething slackers, Stiller still knows the apparently lost art of going for the jugular, at least when it comes to that ridiculous, self-centered, wholly overpaid activity we know of as moviemaking.
Tropic Thunder--about a group of filmmakers who lose themselves in the jungle, then encounter a band of real-life, fully armed heroin growers--peaks early, which may or may not be unfortunate; truth to tell, nowadays you can't expect a sense of control and timing from directors. You can't, for example, expect the kind of perfectly calibrated sense of mounting hilarity Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin used to orchestrate with easy mastery, from titter to yowl to belly laugh to boffo; you can't expect (unlike with Keaton) a distinctive visual style, much less an eye for beauty, in today's comedies. At most you're thankful for the occasional belly laugh, and here you get it when star and actor wannabe Tugg Speedman (Stiller) uses his outstretched tongue to catch the drippings off of movie director Damien Cockburn's (Steve Coogan) severed head (long story). People will squirm in their seats; others will howl (or at least chortle) with glee; suffice to say, the image is a declaration of principles of sorts: it's an announcement to the general public that this will not be a safe movie, it will not for the most part play nice.
Stiller may have shot his load early, but there's enough in this shaggy vet story to make one want to sit it through to the end, more or less--basically what keeps you watching is the subtext that all this is a willed illusion, put together by the filmmakers, and that each of the characters must deal with the fragile nature of that illusion according to their own special circumstances. Hence: Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) must face his ambivalence about his own sexuality; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, blessed with the single funniest line in the picture--won't say what it is, only that he delivers it while tied to a tree) must learn to function despite a massive drug addiction; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., lampooning his own Method intensity) has to pick out, from all the roles he's immersed himself in, his own true identity (not to mention his native accent); and Speedman must learn how to distinguish everyday reality from the hyperreality of movies. Each lunatic is lost in a literal and metaphorical jungle; each has woven his own silken cocoon about him from which he must extricate himself if he's to survive, and each is too mired in his own obsessions and needs--at least at first--to ever want to do so.
Only three characters have enough sense of self to totally avoid the movie's entangling web of confusion: Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey, for once more charming than creepy), Speedman's heroically loyal talent agent (he insists come hell or high water that Speedman is contractually guaranteed his own TiVo); Four Leaf Tayback (A sneaky-as-usual Nick Nolte), whose novel was, if you like, the initiating catalyst that prompted a major Hollywood studio into investing millions into the project (in effect turning his personal illusion into a gigantic hyperreal construction (in short, a studio set)); and Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, giving an unreservedly comic turn here--will wonders never cease?), an unspeakable monster of a studio executive with the power to make his slightest whim come true (speaking, for example, over a wide-screen satellite video link, Grossman demands that someone smack the hapless Cockburn for wasting four million dollars on an explosion none of the cameras recorded--upon which someone immediately complies). If these three compared to everyone else in the movie seem relatively stable and focused, that may be because they have something besides themselves to live for: Peck has Speedman, Tayback his novel, and Grossman--well, Grossman's just too damned powerful to care.
As movie satires about moviemaking go, it's not quite as withering as Terry Southern's Blue Movie (I'm still waiting for the filmmaker with cojones big enough to tackle that impossible project); it's not even Blake Edward's S.O.B. where some of the funniest lines are taken verbatim from actual dialogue spoken in Hollywood. But its take-no-prisoners, anything-for-a-laugh spirit is infectious, and Stiller has imagination enough to take his scorched-earth approach as far as he can, which as it turns out is a fairly impressive distance.
Stiller is not an unskillful filmmaker; he's able to evoke the look of various films (Platoon; Apocalypse Now; Deer Hunter; the climactic moment in Bridge on the River Kwai) on the relative cheap. He gives Grossman's office a vast, cavernous quality reminiscent of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove (he even grants Cruise's Grossman a revealing private moment comparable to Chaplin's Hitler figure in The Great Dictator (sans a prop as eloquent as giant globe atlas, alas)). And in Speedman's climactic self-confrontation, he miraculously evokes the creepy, dust-moted light Vittorio Storaro used to illuminate Marlon Brando's insanity during the latter part of Apocalypse Now.
A final note: the heroin growers, members of the Flaming Dragon gang, are no mere cardboard Oriental villains; if anything, they seem to be the most grounded people in the entire picture, with no delusions as to what they're doing and why they're doing it (if they've misunderstood anything, it's the true status of Simple Jack, a gigantic flop of a Speedman movie which they play over and over again on an old VHS tape, and worship unreservedly). Their reaction to the actors and filmmaking crew that have landed suddenly in their midst seem less comical than sensible: they regard the intruders as annoying, possibly dangerous distractions. Rightly so--there's nothing more unlikely, chaotic, and corrosive to one's sense of reality and morality and proportion, Stiller seems to be saying, than a movie crew out to make a movie.
First published in Businessworld 10.10.08