Saturday, August 30, 2008

Tropic Thunder

So, I saw Tropic Thunder. I had wanted to ever since I saw the previews for it, even though I usually avoid Ben Stiller movies and movies of that ilk like the plague. But Tropic Thunder seemed to have something, something great. It isn't really the best movie in terms of philosophical musings. But it is incredibly funny. Robert Downey Jr. is amazing, simply awe-inspiring. Matthew McConaughey does his best acting to date in this film, as he generally gets to be a fairly decent guy who just reacts to the craziness around him. It seems to suit him well, though his Southern accent is still in full effect. Ben Stiller is also incredible, given that his overacting works well when he's acting, and his affable guy act works well when he's just wandering around aimlessly in the forest. Jay Baruchel was also a wonderful pick, which was a nice suprise since the only thing I've seen him up until this point was the horrible Knocked Up. The movie works because the actors are actually good, and are actually believable even as the action descends further and further into the fantastical. It is also very well written, and structured. The first actual scene we see of the movie-in-movie "Tropic Thunder" is reflected in the final scene of the real movie the audience watches. Everything, from the shots to the lines to the themes, are all there -only it is done well, if wackily.


Tropic Thunder got in some hot water before it was released because of the scene that utilized the "r" word -retard. I have to say, I think that scene is incredible. It is not only funny, but a scathing look at Hollywood and what they reward and what they cast out. Lazarus (Downey Jr.) rightly points out that Hollywood only accepts certain versions of the mentally disabled -versions of the disabled that are more sanitized and more acceptable. Lazarus' comments about how Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man and Tom Hanks' character in Forest Gump weren't uncomfortably mentally disabled for those of normal mental acuity is startlingly true. Not every person with disabilities is a Raymond or a Forest. And it creates a self-congratulatory environment, where Hollywood can pat themselves on the backs for being so progressive and daring by creating a certain type of character while still uncomfortably ignoring those who do not fit into the idiot savant paradigm. 

The film deals with the situation between the two characters incredibly well, partially because Stiller's Tugg Speedman isn't exactly the brightest crayon in the box anyway -and Lazarus is still remaining fully in his African American character even though he is the only one among the five actors to truly recognize that the events in which they find themselves are not an elaborate staging of guerilla filming but a real and dangerous situation. Tempered by those two facts, the use of the "r" word becomes less offensive than if it was just being kicked around. We're supposed to react to the use of the word, and the examples Lazarus brings up to support his point about going "full retard". We're supposed to recognize that this is an entirely inappropriate conversation that also happens to be about a rather demeaning set of standards Hollywood clings to -much like the idea that a pretty woman has to get "uglied up" in order to win an Oscar, like Charlize Theron in Monster.

The other thing the film mainly lampoons is method acting. Lazarus' refusal during the entire escapade to break character even though he is fully aware that the movie is no longer in production and that he and his fellow actors are stranded in the wilderness is funny and somewhat gratifying at the same time. At times, he seems to exist dually with the character he embodies, which is an acting feat Downey should be recognized for. Osiris and Lazarus both occupy the same space in several moments of the film, and it is an odd thing to watch even as it brings about some of the most gratifying moments -like Lazarus-Osiris critiquing how Speedman's acting has improved during a rather perilous search-and-rescue mission. Funnier still was him creating other characters, and drawing on his prior acting gigs -like knowing Mandarin from having spent a number of months working in a Chinese sweatshop in order to fully prepare for the role. And his final peeling away of characters toward the end of the film was both funny and cathartic. Osiris was a fun man to spend a film with, but Lazarus (and Downey's Australian accent) was also a wonderful character all on his own. And as a bonus, it also seemed to suggest what I have always felt; and that is that at a certain point, method acting is no longer acting but an actual issue, though my primary example is generally Daniel Day-Lewis.

And the movie works with Stiller's Speedman and Downey's Lazarus-Osiris due to the presence of two straight men -Alpo Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Sandusky is the nobody, and no one can remember his name except Lazarus; and one seems to get the impression that Sandusky agrees to believe Lazarus is right about the whole faux-movie thing based on almost that alone. But he is also an understated necessary device. His is the character who manages to pull the troops together, who isn't so caught up in his stardom (because he doesn't have it yet) that he is worried about tarnishing it, or destroying it, or thinking about where his next high is going to come from. He is perhaps the smartest member of the quintet, and the sanest. Alpo Chino was also a necessary component, especially when he was commenting about how he makes a charitable donation of $2 million a year to his old neighborhood and how the only meaty African American role in the movie went to a white guy. And although it is only one line, it brings to the forefront the thoughts of movies that have been white-washed like 21. He is also a closet homosexual, with a crush on Lance Bass. And because we don't find that out until most of the way through the movie, he isn't some gay character -he is a character who happens to be gay, which makes all the difference. Jack Black also does a fairly decent job as a drug-addled comedian, but his job is to mostly be someone the other characters can react to rather than a full-fledged character himself. He has some odd periods of growth, but his detox takes much of the film to complete and that leaves him with very little time left to be actually conscious. Overall, Tropic Thunder was well worth the trip to the theater, and definitely one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long while.

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