"Nobody Goes Full-Retard"
There's a good idea in Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," a comic story about a trio of self-indulgent actors making a Viet-Nam era war film. By a Machiavellian director's conceit, they end up abandoned in a jungle pursued by drug traffickers, with nothing but their persona's to protect them.* The film tosses in more inside jokes than a "Scary Movie" installment, and some of them turn out to be actually funny.
The trouble is the film itself is top-lined by self-indulgent actors all vying for screen-time to see how broadly they can play their parts. It's meant to be satire, and it's plenty satirical, as long as Stiller, Downey, Black and Cruise are making fun of the Hollywood excesses of...other actors.** But one is reminded of a less-disciplined, unfunny version of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in the broadness of the playing, and heavy-handedness with which its presented. Imagine "Dr. Strangelove" if every performance had the wing-nut intensity of George C. Scott's. "Tropic Thunder" brays and screeches constantly, it's soundtrack thudding with an annoying loudness for scenes even taking place in the quiet of night. There might have been some worry on the studio's part about letting the movie breathe, or fear that the pace might slacken. All well and semi-good. But it gives the film the light and airy feeling of a train barrelling into a brick wall. And the frenetic style and the frequent unintelligibility of the actors makes it a frustrating movie-going experience.
Still, there are moments: the movie starts with a commercial and previews for films featuring the characters in the film, and they are inspired little mini-movies that skewer trailer-style, as well as Hollywood hype. None too subtle, but they're mercifully short and focused. Then there's the performance of Matthew McConaughey, as the distracted agent of Stiller's Tugg Speedman, a breezy graceful performance that's funny and relaxed, but just as nuanced as the other, more aggressive performances.
At the opposite end of the scale is Cruise's studio-headcase Les Grossman. Made up with a balding pate and fat-suit, it's played with a giddily vulgar intensity that's pure hyper-Cruise; one wonders if Tom can play a real human being anymore, or for that, even recognize one. Still, it's quite the artery-popping performance.
But ultimately one is left with a bunch of absurdist little off-ramps that go no where, as in the dramatic send-up typical of the testosterone-weeper when Tugg implores Lazarus, "You tell the world what happened here!"
A puzzled look passes over Lazarus' face: "What happened here?"
"I don't know" is the reply.
I found myself laughing at the vacuousness of the exchange, but now, in retrospect, I regret it. Maybe I was desperate for a laugh at that point.
At one point Speedman and Lazarus are discussing acting techniques, and the former brings up a disastrous attempt at a feel-good Oscar-bait film playing a disabled person. "Everybody knows you don't go full-retard," says Lazarus. "Autistic, yes. Imbecilic, yes. Full-retard, no."
And yet they made this movie, anyway.
"Tropic Thunder" is a cable-watcher.
*What's really funny about the script is the cribbing of the making of "Apocalypse Now." Back in the early stages of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope film factory, the plan was for screenwriter John Milius and director George Lucas to make the film "guerrilla-style" by actually dropping the actors and a skeleton crew in Viet-Nam to make the movie. Today, Lucas admits the idea was crazy. Milius still imagines it as a lost opportunity for adventure.
** It's pretty obvious who is being made fun of here: Stiller makes a wicked stab at Cruise mannerisms, Downey is tweaking Russell Crowe and heavy-method actors--his Aussie Kirk Lazarus undergoes treatments to turn his skin black and never breaks character from a dialect straight out of Amos n' Andy, and Jack Black is one of the long line of overweight, drug-addicted comedians on a short fuse. And though Cruise has cause to lampoon Summer Redstone, his movie mogul is more in the Weinstein mode (and is supposedly based on Stiller's production partner Stuart Cornfeld).
Wilhelm Alert: @ 2:25 into the film proper (if you can call it that)