August 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder

They say this cat Downey is one bad mother...

Grade: B

Director: Ben Stiller

Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

It’s official – I worship at the altar of Robert Downey, Jr. The question of whether Downey is a top-flight actor was definitely answered way back in 1992 after his thus-far lone Academy Award-nominated turn in Chaplin. The years since have been a well-documented roller coaster of professional triumphs and personal travails that have both sharpened his acting skills and lent a hardscrabble edge to his aura.

Perhaps it is that professional street-cred, or the cache he earned after elevating Iron Man into one of the year’s most unexpected blockbusters, that gives Downey the leeway to tackle a part like Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder. (Set aside the obvious fact that the character’s surname is itself a comment on Downey’s rise from the Hollywood – and nearly literal – dead). One fact is indisputable: a minute number of actors would have the guts to accept such a risky role, and even fewer could get away with doing so without incurring public scorn and/or falling flat on their blackface.

Downey’s Lazarus is a five-time Oscar-winning Australian known for totally immersing himself into character – a less-than thinly veiled parody of Russell Crowe, or, nationality aside, the Method-obsessed Downey himself. To play a black soldier in the eponymous Vietnam War movie, Lazarus undergoes a skin pigmentation procedure and adopts an accent falling somewhere between Fred Williamson and Redd Foxx. Sure, Lazarus is a riff on the practice of movie actors’ plundering roles that cross racial, gender, age, and handicapped lines for the sake of critical acclaim and “craft.” Moreover, as a self-absorbed aesthete wrapped inside a Hollywood blaxploitation archetype, he is a raw, razor-sharp satire of the cinema’s traditionally uneasy, even patronizing relationship with reality. A part that could have gone so horribly wrong becomes – in Downey’s talented, transformative hands – epically hilarious and almost transcendent. Rarely has such an average film demanded repeat viewings thanks to a single performance.

The rest of Tropic Thunder is a decidedly mixed-bag, less a whole than the sum of its parts. Lazarus is one of several prima donna actors shooting a big-budget war movie, including an aging action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, pulling double-duty as director), rotund, heroin-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and a hip-hop entertainer with the handle Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). When the cast is stranded in the jungles of Southeast Asia, they inadvertently stumble across the real danger of a Thai drug cartel. Yet, as a consequence of their privileged insularity, the actors believe they are participating in a form of verite filmmaking and endeavor to play their parts.

The inside-baseball references come fast and furious, including virtually every Vietnam War movie ever made. In one of three faux-trailers that “precede” the film, the flatulent Portnoy stars in a Klumps-style franchise called “The Fatties.” Less obvious, but just as incendiary, is a fleeting subplot involving Chino and the ambiguous sexuality that many rap stars camouflage behind a façade of overheated machismo.

Uneven satire and Downey’s tour de force notwithstanding, the film’s worth is judged exclusively on a cameo-by-cameo basis. Many are wasted – Bill Hader and Steve Coogan – while others are simply underutilized – Danny McBride as a pyrotechnician and Nick Nolte as a grizzled Viet vet from whose novel the titular movie is being adapted. The two true standouts are also two surprises. Matthew McConaughey has limited range, but he was born to play a Hollywood agent. And, Tom Cruise’s extended turn as a paunchy, balding film mogul is the worst-kept surprise of the film; his foul-mouthed, booty-shaking routine may well inject some much-needed cool back into his career. His performance would walk away with any other film. As it is, Cruise’s presence – however amusing and audacious it is for a while – only magnifies the fact that he is among the plethora of actors who could never pull off a role like Kirk Lazarus.

Indeed, the overheated, over-the-top performances carry the comedy, but they also drown out the satirical cleverness.

At times, Tropic Thunder threatens to transform into the big-budget action movie it seeks to lampoon. But, Downey always comes back to save the film, spitting out antiquated cultural clichés in equal measure with Hollywood bons mots. When Tugg bemoans the abject failure of his misbegotten attempt at a dramatic star turn in a film named “Simple Jack” – in which Tugg plays a mentally challenged man-child – Lazarus cites real-life examples to buttress his simple, sadly true diagnosis: “Never go full retard.”

The obvious irony is that Downey ends up earning and deserving critical acclaim for a role that lambastes the very fondness for heaping awards upon roles such as his. Like Lazarus, he is “just a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.” In my estimation, Downey’s just one bad dude.

Neil Morris

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds pretty good. Ill have to check it out this weekend.

Oh and I worship at the altar of C. Thomas Howell.

If this is HALF as good as Soul Man.........