Sunday, August 17, 2008

i'm amused, also ashamed...


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.

6 comments:

claire donner, party of one said...

We're definitely on the same page in that Ben Stiller's name on a marquee has become the kiss of death for me, but I hold that there have been moments at which he might have opted to become genuinely interesting.
Aside from early appearances on the reputable Freaks & Geeks, Mr. Show, News Radio, and leading roles in the interestingly unpleasant FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996) and MYSTERY MEN (1999), Stiller has had a couple of subtle, competent dramatic turns that make me wonder why he chose to stick with the lowest common denominator. I'm kind of thinking of what I've heard about PERMANENT MIDNIGHT (1998), but also it is deeply unfortunate that nobody ever talks about the strange sour romance that is ZERO EFFECT (1998). This is a film that was tragically mispromoted as a broad, caustic screwball comedy, and in reality, is anything but. For the uninitiated: (the hugely underrated) Bill Pullman is a preternaturally talented private eye who is such an utter train wreck in his personal life that he communicates with the outside world only through his nervous young advocate Ben Stiller. The story primarily concerns the mystery of how someone with Pullman's keen comprehension of the human heart can be such an utter disaster himself, but the subplot about Stiller's inability to cultivate his personal happiness while tethered to his tragically needy employer is subtle, poignant, and pitch-perfect thanks to Stiller's usually untapped dramatic talent.
What gives? The same year we find Stiller donning the hairshirt of modern slapstick comedian in collaboration with the Farrelly Bros. for their visceral meganightmare THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and hence forth this is the type of performance for which he becomes really famous. MEET THE PARENTS/FAWKERS, ZOOLANDER, DODGEBALL, ANCHORMAN, STARSKY & HUTCH...I'm pretty sure I'd rather have Ben Stiller come to my house and punch me in the face than have to suffer through any of these.
(I realize I might be alone in the universe in my hatred of ANCHORMAN, but whatever)
It's a popular conception that comedians of this stripe must be damaged goods on some level in order to do what they do, and Stiller is Exhibit A for that case, but there were some moments before MEET THE PARENTS (which I would sooner stay under my bed and cut myself than watch again)that seemed to portend the possibility of more inventive, thoughtful output. Not that it's really helpful for the average moviegoer to psychoanalyze an apparently intelligent and capable performer's descent into sadomasochistic screwball "comedy", but I think Stiller manifests some kind of profound self-loathing in devoting himself to this string of soul-crushing humilithons over, you know, doing something else at which he is more than competent. Oh well, at the end of the day, I guess it's all about money anyway.. .
Also, I'm a little surprised that you're completely dismissive of CABLE GUY. Not that it's "good" for anyone's money, but it seems like prime fodder for Negative Pleasure: a movie that thinks it's an easily digestible piece of comedic fluff designed to pit Jim Carrey's (supposedly) fascinating freakishness against Stiller's (supposedly) appealing put-upon straight man stylings, when in the unspooling it rapidly mutates into a dark, consistently unnerving psychological thriller of the FATAL ATTRACTION ilk. Not that I'm suggesting you reconsider this grotesque curiosity; I'm "just saying".
Keep up the good work, Mr. Smith!

harris smith said...

i didn't mean to sound dismissive of "the cable guy," actually i think that, along with the ben stiller show, are kind of at the roots (with a handful of other similar projects from the same time, mainly "seinfled," and as you mentioned, "newsradio" and "mr. show") are the basis for most contemporary comedy- good or bad- that has come since, from crappy will ferrell movies to the more palatable "adult swim" and "comedians of comedy" type stuff. i think "the cable guy" is flawed but infinitely clever...good call on "the zero effect," that's really kind of a beautiful movie, and stiller really does get to play a character with some depth. the whole subplot with him and his girlfriend, and his attempts to cut the cord with pullman's character, brought more of a quietly emotional component to the film beyond the mystery and comedy. also good call on 'mystery men.' aside from being a colorfully entertaining and very funny superhero flick, it's a great portrayal of these downtrodden characters, Stiller especially, as he wallows in this like impotent anger and attempts to portray a "dark" persona when he's really just a normal guy. finally, i agree that there is definitely a huge component of self-loathing in everything the guy does. i mean, when he's not starring in some degrading "meet the fockers" type pain and humiliation comedy, he's playing a spoiled/moronic/contemptible celebrity parody in stuff like "zoolander" and "tropic thunder," or portraying a version of himself as a total asshole on "curb your enthusiasm" or "extras."
thanks for reading/posting/encouraging and of course all of your other wonderful and acceptable contributions to my humdrum existence, ms. donner...hcs

claire donner, party of one said...

Oh, perhaps in my enthusiasm I misread you on CABLE GUY. But meanwhile, a certain Amy Voorhees Searles we both know just randomly linked me to a compilation of all of PUTNEY SWOPE'S fake ads, inadvertently reminding me that I meant to add: Is no one making any mention, flip or otherwise, about the uncomfortable mirroring between Downey Sr.'s masked performance in SWOPE in the service of sniping at ad industry, and Downey Jr.'s perverse makeup-aided turn for TROPIC THUNDER's jab at the entertainment industry? I mean, I don't know exactly what to say about it, and maybe someone has said something interesting that hasn't fallen into my lap, but it seems worth mentioning. At least for a larf.

justshutitoff said...

I can't stand Jack Black, since pretty much ever. But I have to say that I completely disagree when you say he had nothing to do. I also think the simple fact that he didn't have a single "skibble-de-bop" moment gives accolades to the director and/or editor that surely excised them from the footage. When you think that he had nothing to do, I ask you to reconsider, sir, and remember, at the very least, the fellatio monologue, if not the many moments of drug-related suffering cum humor.

harris smith said...

yeah, i also forgot about JB's panty slingshot speech, which was pretty funny, but the fact that i couldn't remember anything he did in the film except rolling around in the dirt moaning for heroin speaks to the fact that he didn't have all that much to do, all things considered. and what, you didn't like him in THE NEVERENDING STORY III? (seriously, though, he's great in JESUS' SON, check that one out if you can)

harris smith said...

oh, yeah, i just remembered the fellatio monologue. there's nothing funnier than a good "i'll suck your dick for drugs" speech, is there? why is that?