Why I almost liked “TROPIC THUNDER”

tropic thunder

Identities manufactured for survival in or out of the jungle.

Robert Downey Jr. Robert Downey Jr. Robert Downey Jr. Say it as many times as you can till your heart hurts. I feel it when he’s on the screen. It’s captivating, his breath and depth draws me into whatever he is saying. Layers of pathos, humor, respect, disrespect, rebellion and compliance, all the contradictions of life, slathered over every look, every word.

You slap Downey into any foolish half written dribble and he elevates it beyond it’s humble ruins, he brings credibility to any paper doll role, adds pain to humor and courage to posturing heroics.

And whenever Downey is on the screen as Kirk Lazarus, for this satirical Hollywood actor’s visit to a forgotten reality plot, he lifts the entire Ben Stiller genre up over his head, make that HIGH up over his head and dares everyone to reach up with their dirty fingers from the mud.

But they can’t reach that high.

Why can’t they reach, is it too difficult?

Yes, it is. Downey is the poster child for what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Not in a physical way but in mind, and spirit.

Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) has never been more debilitating as a farting, belching, fat, boring, self hating, comedian. Totally out of his element. The contrast between himself and the other actors is astronomical. He’s the iceberg that sank the titanic, but here he’s even more useless. His scenes are completely forgettable and irrelevant to the plot line or involvement with the other actors. It’s like cutting away to a preadolescent drug comedy only without the pluses of obligatory naked coeds scenes. Black lurches and bellies his way through lines. This isn’t acting, this is worse than posturing, I think it’s called mugging, and here it serves multiple forms of the word. It’s like being in a school gym shower next the naked fat guy, if you turn away then you’re just showing him your ass, there is no upside.

Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) a closet gay rapper energy drink salesman, acts as sharp foil to Lazarus’s black mimicry, calling him out for his hypocrisy. Lazarus’s mental gymnastic shimmers around Alpa leaving him frustrated and exhausted. The two build a poignant  edge to their dialogue exchange and it’s very funny as Lazarus settles in watching his own skilled metal surgery . Again it works because of the grounding truisms sewn through their scenes.

Bringing up the rear of these jittery faux commandos is Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) the mental glue that serves well as a tiny anchor for this massive ship of transplanted L.A hot air. He’s the witness to the endless debacle of egotistical stumbling from his fellow actors.

The film opens with a brilliantly fabricated battle that saddles the genres so well that you ebb and flow in and out of satire, movie making, and a thinly disguised comedy of grown men rushing about, blowing themselves up for vanity’s sake.  It’s captivating, if only for the sheer execution of it.

The sham war is brought to an emotional halt by Downey’s weeping upon an armless Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Stiller unable to cry along. The new male macho stereo type cries like a baby, and Stiller is unable to draw from his shallow reserves of morality to summon up a tear.

You never go full retard, even if you really are.

You never go full retard, even if you really are.

Stiller has raised his usual fair of poor parlor tricks, of groin humor and tongue deeply set in cheeks, by adding Downey to the cast, and it works. If Downey stays in the frame, move him out for an instant and it’s pure who gives a damn…except for a scene where a frustrated English director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) has to face down Hollywood scum producer (Tom Cruise) who enthusiastically demands a large grip to punch the director in the face. The grip apologizes and punches the director hard, bloodying his nose. This scene encompasses all that was right with this concept, the bizarre Hollywood situations create true laughs and the flowing blood reminds you of the painful consequences in this mini world. The scale of the scene and it’s humor based in all too real over the top egos and the hierarchy of the movie making class system, made it enthralling.

Ben Stiller (Tug Speedman) is best when parodying himself. His humor skills have always been lost on me, I find them predictable and sophomoric. Here he plays a washed up action figure Tug Speedman, trying to revive his dying career. It’s almost as though Stiller himself were trying to revive his failing box office credits.

And it’s brilliant as long as Stiller pins his ludicrious posturing to a context set against more fleshed out realities, even if it’s a twisted reality that creates such misguided characters. Downey creates this anchor to the small island of motivation, but the moment that Stiller leaves its confines he becomes silly and sad. A grown man with a Panda skull on his head, is this funny?

Three emotionally addled Hollywood personalities are joined together by a violent bloated self-indulgent producer played by Tom Cruise (in the only role, I have ever liked him as) with an earnest misguided English director who is in over his head with prima donna actors thirsty to drink their own publicity, somewhere deep in Vietnam.

At the advice of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) the hypocritical writer of the book Tropic Thunder, the desperate director decides to cast his prima donna’s into the jungle to tear away their facades of glamour and comfort. Sadly the director suffers the worse of this ill advised decision and is quickly blown up by a hidden mine. Of course the jaded Speedman fails to recognize his death as real and plays with his remains. It’s a not so cryptic symbol of the death of the film itself and that Stiller is about to perform necrophilia transforming the remaining footage from a inspirational film of poignant commentary on Hollywood delusion to a rotoscoped Stiller posturing pantomime.

Speedman takes over the lost and confused actors and leads them into his mental state of false bravado and unsubstantiated self assurance. They quickly fall into a world of trigger happy Heroin dealers, The Flaming Dragon gang, lead by Brandon Soo Hoo, short stack on barbituates. It’s a long fall back to the bullet basement sale, where guns are always going off and no one is shot.

Stillers tiny Stallone imitation works as long as he is playing off Downey. Even a simple exchange in which Downey calmly ridicules Stiller as a retard, it’s a point blank insult, confuses Speedman. He can only nod in meaningless agreement. Lazarus  (Downey) turns his accusation eloquently, like a Olympian ice skater into a critique of Speedman’s film flop “Simple Jack,” contrasting retards in the history of film explaining that you should never to full retard. Of course the under current of the verbiage is that Speedman is a complete retard, which is proven constantly through the film. It’s a classic moment that makes the entire film worth watching. It’s what Downey does best, create scintillating intellectual moments from what would otherwise be pulp.

“Everybody knows you never go full retard. Dustin Hoffman in ‘Rain Man’. Not retarded. Peter Sellers in ‘Being There’. Not retarded. Tom Hanks in ‘Forrest Gump’. Slow, but not retarded. Ask Sean Penn in ‘I Am Sam’, Lazarus says. He went ‘full retard’ No Oscar.

Lazarus wins almost every debate, he seems impenetrable beneath his dark skin makeup. The suspense of when will he break is soon dispelled for admiration of his convictions, which makes his final leap out of character at the end of the film a rather a thin reveal.

The second half of the film is completely forgettable, the few moments i remember are only because of how bad they were.

The Herion gang forces Speedman to act out “Simple Jack” their favorite and only film on VHS. The scenes drag on and the actors attempt to save their fellow deluded thespian is flaccid and without motivation.

The middle of the second act and the entire third should have been entirely rewritten. The usual false bottom and the descent into the ordinary is hard to live through when there was so much promised. I see the brilliance of the first half of this script and mourn for the loss of the second.

It would have been amazing to watch Speedman die horribly at the hands of a true clan of Herion dealers. What greater shock could there have been to see one of their own fall  under the fist of the ultimate realism death, riddled with bullets. But Stiller isn’t brave enough to sacrifice his own ego to save this movie and hand the lead to Downey.

And that’s the final movie in a movie in a movie: that there was a real movie to be made here but Stiller’s ego ruined it again. CUT!

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