Tropic Blunder

20 08 2008

Not long into Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, a thirtysomething British film director, whose incapacities shooting a Vietnam-war-style thriller with “big Hollywood talent” have driven the producer to the point of commanding a gaffer to punch him in the nose, and who has decided, thanks to the advice of the wartorn, bedraggled writer whose book the movie is based on, to haul a small team into the jungle for “realism,” happens to step on an ancient buried landmine and get blown to smithereens. The actors, principally Stiller, Jack Black, and a slightly minstrelized Robert Downey Jr., are stunned, thinking this one of the director’s weird special effects put in place to psych them up for the intensity of the shoot. We know better. And when one of them picks up the director’s head, thinking it a prop, we know better once again. He sticks his fingers up through what remains of the neck, so that cerebral material begins to drip out like tepid pasta, and only then does it dawn on our heroes that they are in deeper than they intended to be.

This film would be less execrable than it is (not to say that it isn’t funny, because often it is hilarious) if this scene had any connection at all to the action. But the director is in the picture only to donate his head for this sequence; he has no dramatic function, nor does the explosion—there are plenty of other reality/fiction gags. Nor does the scene work more powerfully than others do to establish the terminal stupidity of our three main characters.

There is another scene with even more painful imagery, involving Ben Stiller’s hands; and plenty of nicely framed shots of people getting hit bullets where nobody wants to get hit. As the old writer, Nick Nolte is precisely as effective as anyone would hope–he has learned to master this role, certainly since The Good Thief and Hulk, and here gives it precisely the right tone and a nice developmental arc. Stiller is predictably hilarious, his head seeming to be as stuffed as that of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, yet with old newspaper in another language, not nourishing straw. Jack Black leaves something to be wished for, alas. And Downey is utterly symphonic, although to what end I cannot manage to discern—it’s all technique, and it’s superlative, yet somehow, and not because of him, there is no real performance.

Tom Cruise, who has convinced a large public that he is a bombastic, self-adoring, narcissistic cur is here cast in the role of a bombastic, self-adoring, narcissistic cur, with body padding, thick hair where no man has thick hair, and a potty mouth that could teach any rapper a thing or two. Ten seconds of this is quite enough, but we get whole scenes, building to whole other scenes. The final credit sequence, starring Cruise, makes any sensitive soul want to race out of the theater.

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