I Don't See Any Method At All
2008 // USA - Germany // Ben Stiller // September 12, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Hollywood is a tempting target for satire. The angles of attack are multitude: the self-importance, the artificiality, the artlessness, the clueless insularity, the inhuman ruthlessness. Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder tackles them all. It pounces with slavering gusto on every opportunity for vicious mockery, strafing Tinseltown with both barrels. It's definitely funny, but not the sort of comedy that had me laughing beginning to end. Instead it inspired a state of disbelief, gaping amusement, and squirming embarrassment. In its best moments, Thunder calls to mind the lunatic highs of Mel Brook's oeuvre. That said, the film is far too conventional in some respects, and too sublimely bizarre in others to be mistaken for any kind of comic masterwork. Yet despite some misfires in the performances and script, the sheer chutzpah of the enterprise and Stiller's unexpected flashes of comic madness render it a thing to behold. Neither mercy nor tact are in its arsenal, and thank God for that.
Stiller and co-writers Justin "This Is the Girl" Theroux and Etan Cohen open Tropic Thunder with an inspired and cunning sequence, using commercials and trailers to introduce the main characters. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a hip-hop artist who has made a fortune peddling his own brand of energy drinks and bars. Lowbrow physical comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is starring in a sequel to his flatulence-rich gross-out hit, The Fatties. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an award-showered Aussie Method actor appearing in a prestige drama about homosexual priests. And finally Tugg Speedman (a well-muscled and -oiled Stiller) is launching the latest sequel in his apocalyptic action franchise, Scorcher VI.
These fake ads set the refreshingly original tone for the rest of the film. Thunder doesn't occupy itself with wisecracks or dry observations. Rather, it replicates the ludicrous qualities of the real world and adds half a twist of bonus stupidity. We're prompted to loathe the characters of Thunder based solely on small glimpses of their output. However, the ads are also aimed squarely at the audience's own pop cultural preferences. The satire doesn't truly sting unless you've paid good money to see similar garbage. It's a risky tactic; no one likes to be called an idiot, even by implication. Stiller keeps us on his side by conveying a sense of shared misery. The director, after all, has produced his share of crap, as have his performers. In keeping with Thunder's Vietnam War film-within-the-film, Stiller establishes a bitter camaraderie with his audience, capped with a sheepish grin: "Can you believe we made it through nightmares like If Lucy Fell and Mystery Men?"
Thunder's plot is the stuff of numerous screwball comedies-of-error, albeit ratcheted up with admirably realized corporate movie-making freneticism and dollops of pure weirdness. The aforementioned film-within-the-film, also titled Tropic Thunder, is a Very Serious War Picture. Shooting on location in Vietnam, the production is rapidly spiraling out of control. Over budget and behind schedule, novice director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is out of his league juggling his stars' inflated egos and demands. Black is a barely controllable heroin addict. Stiller is trying to leap out of his action flick rut, having failed with a disastrous bit of Oscar-bait titled Simple Jack. (His mistake? Like Sean Penn in I Am Sam, he went "full retard.") Downey has medically darkened his skin to play the film's black sergeant, much to Jackson's consternation, and refuses to break character at any time. Hovering over Coogan's shoulder via satellite is monstrous producer Les Grossman (a hirsute, balding Tom Cruise), who breathes in air and exhales venomous insults and violent threats.
Lurking around the set is Four-Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, grizzled and hook-handed), whose war memoir, also titled Tropic Thunder, serves as the basis for the film. Nolte recommends that Coogan break the actors out of their comfort zones by putting them "in the shit," as the vets say. The director eagerly pursues this notion, dropping his pampered cast in the jungle and resolving to shoot the rest of the film "guerrilla style" with minimal crew. Things go off the rails almost instantly, with Stiller and his fellow actors blundering into the clutches of opium growers. Suffice to say that the story functions mostly to establish that Stiller and company are complete fools, although—since this isn't completely pitch black comedy—their foolishness arguably saves them by the end.
Tropic Thunder isn't particularly funny or insightful when it relies on one-note gags or hackneyed reversals of expectations. You know the drill. The devoted Method thespian is in the throes of an identity crisis. The hip-hop star with the ultra-heterosexual partier persona is actually a sensitive gay wannabe actor. You can practically hear Stiller and Theroux tittering: We can gets some gags out of that, right? For all of Stiller's enviable precision when he aims at the institutional absurdities of Hollywood, there are still some unfortunate miscalculations. Cruise's producer is exquisitely malevolent, and he chews on the vulgarity with roaring relish. (I could have listened to him berate his underlings all night.) Yet Stiller seems to think that a puffy Cruise dancing to hip-hop is hilarious, when in reality it's just odd. The worst offender is Black, who is sadly miscast and grating. His manic "Cuckoo for Smack" routine lacks the wounded adolescent strut that made The School of Rock and Kung Fu Panda such delights, and all that's left is a bug-eyed caricature of addiction.
When Tropic Thunder succeeds, however, it succeeds marvelously. Satirizing the film industry is its primary mission, and in this it is absolutely savage. No one escapes its wrath: actors, directors, producers, writers, agents, or assistants. Even the pyrotechnics technician is portrayed as a clown. Most importantly, Stiller gets both the broad strokes and the details exactly right. Consider the portrayal of Stiller's agent, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey). There's the slick, unimaginative nicknames he spouts ("Tuggster!"); the way he proudly relishes his client's panda-rescue charity ad in Vanity Fair (back cover!); the fact that he plays Wii Tennis while talking on his Bluetooth headset, for Chrissake. It's ludicrous, but also creepily plausible. Thunder exhibits the sort of meticulous, dead-on writing and production design that betrays both an affection and a burning hatred for Hollywood.
Thunder also features glimmers of unexpected goofiness that borders on inspired lunacy. Indeed, it's the little things from this film that stick with me and bring a smile to my face, and most of these moments involve Stiller. I've never had any particular affection for him as a comedic actor, and here he spends too much screen time mired in a fruitless, Martin Sheen send-up. Yet I can't deny the dabs of crackpot strangeness that he adds to the film. Lost in the jungle with only his video iPod, he raptly watches Captain Kirk tussle with a rubber-suited alien. A lesser comedy would have harped on his affection for Star Trek in the script; instead Stiller slides in this revealing character detail via a sight gag. There's the shock and then hilarious horror when an animal attack has an unthinkable outcome. There's the wide-eyed way he murmurs the line, "You've got the VHS?" And there's the utterly demented sight of a baby repeatedly stabbing Stiller in the back with a knife. The moment is a personal favorite from the film, one that illustrates just how wonderfully nasty and unexpected Tropic Thunder can be. Consider yourself advised, soldier.