A while back I watched the "Death Wish"-rip off revenge thriller "Death Sentence," which was directed by the guy who did "Saw," a film I really didn't like at all. Since then, I've been totally dragging my heels on this review, and I've realized why- "Death Wise" wasn't all that interesting. I mean, it was bad, and I like writing about bad movies, but sometimes it's kinda hard to get it up for something so mediocre. I should have taken the "from the director of SAW" tag as a warning. I mean, I like Kevin Bacon (check him out in "The Woodsman," or his theatrical directing debut "Loverboy," starring his wife Kyra Sedgwick, both are pretty great), but he's co-starring with Scientologist (insert derogatory expletive here) Kelly Preston and a horribly overacting, miscast, inexplicably accented (Chicago? Louisiana? Egypt?) John Goodman (it's been a loooooong time since the Big Lebowski for that dude) in an action drama that aims for the gritty realism of "Death Wish" but winds up more like the ridiculous overnblown inanity of "Death Wish 3." If you like to flex your celtic tribal tattoos to a nu-metal soundtrack, "Death Sentence" might appeal to you. Otherwise, you need not apply...
"Tropic Thunder," meanwhile, is an entirely different beast. Though I thought there were some funny moments in the trailer, I had no real intention of seeing it. Blackface? Making fun of retarded people? Ben Stiller, Matthew McGoonallahalllay and Tom Cruise all in the same movie? Fucking forget about it, man. But Friday night my friend texted me to go meet him at the big AMC theatre over on Times Square to see "Hell Ride," the new 1960s-style biker flick directed by minor 1960s biker/b-movie actor Larry Bishop (he had supporting roles in a handful of AIP biker flicks and the counterculture semi-classic "Wild in the Streets"). Unfortunately, when we got there, "Hell Ride" wasn't showing anyone (ironically, it had actually moved to a theatre on Houston Street, about three blocks away from my apartment), and the other pickins were generally pretty slim. "The Dark Knight" was out because my friend only wants to see it in IMAX, and also we were both looking for something entertaining. Although as young white men we're legally obligated to see "Pineapple Express," neither of us could muster much enthusiasm for it. Woody Allen hasn't made a watchable movie since "Crimes & Misdemeanors" (well, ok, "Deconstructing Henry," but that was still a decade ago), so his new flick was out. So that left "Tropic Thunder," which my friend had already seen, but liked enough to sit through again.
I really genuinely kind of dislike Ben Stiller, but mainly because I used to really like him, and am just kind of non-plussed that the guy who really played a major role in defining contemporary comedy in the 1990s with "the Ben Stiller Show" and "the Cable Guy" has basically become the kind of mediocre hack he used to so often parody, but he still has the nerve to make these in-jokey, self-congratulatory comedies with all his lame Hollywood friends. In my eyes, he's become somebody who has no credibility, and on the surface, "Tropic Thunder" just seemed like more of the same. Really, do we need another movie by a bunch of shallow, brainless Hollywood phonies about how shallow, brainless and phony Hollywood is?
The answer, of course, is no, but "Tropic Thunder" is still pretty consistently funny, enough so to make me overlook a lot of its many, many flaws. Well, all of its flaws but one- the casting of Scientologist creep, bad actor and all around awful cultural presence Tom Cruise as the Jewish-stereotype producer. In a film that's caused some controversy for a number of reasons, this is the only parody that has no basis in anything other than wringing some cheap laughs (and one genuinely funny line about Purim) out of a tired, offensive stereotype. If this role were played by another actor, it might come off. Stiller himself, of course, is Jewish, as is co-star Jack Black (or David Cross, who isn't in this film, or Larry David, or dozens of other performer), but the casting of Anglo, Scientologist Cruise is just kind of a slap in the face. I mean, someone who speaks out against psychotherapy and antidepressant use is inherently anti-semetic. Sorry, bad joke, but Tom Cruise is a fucking creep, and seeing him play this disgusting (the character is even called Grossman) stereotype character was bothersome.
This is different from the other stereotypes parodied in the film, because in the other instances, there is actually an element of commentary involved. Robert Downey Jr, of course, as has been much, much reported, plays an Australian actor who has undergone pigmentation surgery in order to portray an African American character, something frequently called into question by an actual African American actor (played by Brandon T. Jackson) throughout the film. It doesn't always work, but it works enough that the comedy comes through and doesn't offend, at least not the racially diverse crowd I saw the film with, who seemed to enjoy Downey's antics but obviously also preferred Jackson's telling him off. The other controversy surrounded by the film, the portrayal of a retarded character, is kind of unfounded. If anything, "Tropic Thunder" pokes fun at actors who play mentally disabled characters as a crude ploy to win awards. I think the specific protests against the film stem from the use of the word "retard," but just being opposed to the use of one word at the expense of noticing the nuance that actually supports their cause, we'll, it'd be crass to call that "retarded," but this film is beings attacked by the same group that endorsed the Special Olympics themed Johnny Knoxville vehicle "The Ringer," which most crassly wrung emotional resonance out of 90-minutes of "retard" jokes by employing actual disabled actors, which is to say some people don't know who their friends and who their enemies are. Which is to say, kinda lame.
But whatever, "Tropic Thunder" tries to push some buttons, sometimes effectively and sometimes not, but overall the film sustains because it is frequently very funny, and that's something. Stiller, oddly enough, is almost a non-presence, as is the very one-note, kind of miscast Matthew McGoonahygoohoo, whatever his fucking name is, that guy hasn't been in a worthwhile movie since "Dazed & Confused." Even Jack Black doesn't have much at all to do, at all. Meanwhile, scenes are stolen by Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan in small roles, and by Jay Baruchel, as one of the main cast. Best of all is preteen Brandon Soo Hoo as the child drug warlord who torments Stiller and co., and toddlers J. Thomas & Jacob Chon who collectively play a child adopted and condescendingly referred to as "Half Squat" by Stiller, and who wind up stabbing the shit out of him in the finale, one of "Tropic Thunder's" funniest moments. Jackson is also very funny as hip-hop mogul turned actor Alpha Chino, but the revelation that his character is gay is obvious and a trite way to add depth to a character that already seems to possess some depth.
So, yeah, "Tropic Thunder" doesn't offend where it's supposed to, does offend where it doesn't intend to, generally kind of fails to really be a parody of big budget action movies because it is actually a 90 million plus dollar action comedy with lots of cartoonish gore, explosions and movie stars, but it does pack enough laughs to keep a viewer laughing and happy for nearly two hours. Stiller's sense of humor is far, far too broad to really successfully parody anything anyway, his jokes are too all over the place. Still, I laughed, I laughed a lot. "Tropic Thunder" is part of a cancerous blight on cinema and popular culture in general that must be eradicated, but I enjoyed it, and for that I am deeply, deeply ashamed.