Tropic Thunder: R-Rated Comedy and the “R” Word

Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder” is making its share of noise right now, but for me it’s more of a suburban gully washer than a pop culture deluge. This movie is like a mischievous puppy that gets into a lot of trouble, but at the end of the day snuggles in your arms. How cute. How disappointing.

Really? A film that tackles racial insensitivity, Hollywood greed and hypocrisy, celebrity narcissism, and also (gasp) uses humor about the mentally challenged as a major plot device (double gasp) isn’t just the edgiest comedy out there? Sorry to stick a pin in an overheated hype balloon, but “Tropic Thunder” is just a good time, not a breakout experience.

So where did Stiller, and screenwriters Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen go wrong? The premise is terrific … a group of spoiled actors try to enhance their resumes by doing a war movie, only these self-absorbed half-wits wind up in the middle of a real life para-military operation when they stumble upon a drug operation in the jungle. You’ve got Stiller as the action hero, Robert Downey Jr. as an Aussie method actor who has his pigment darkened so he can play a black character, Jack Black as the fat, crass comic, Brandon T. Jackson as the hip-hop star, and Jay Baruchel as the newbie. A perfect cast, a clever pitch … only it’s low and outside.

Why? Well, as a director Stiller only wants to poke when he needs to stab. There’s not enough satiric bite tied to Downey’s character … it’s too cute. Jackson’s hip hop dude should be ripping into this jerk, not making lame quips about “Crocodile Dundee” (a film that clearly has a large following in the black community). Downey is certainly capable of a more complex portrayal, but that would have necessitated a script willing to go to more dangerous places. “Tropic Thunder” has no interest in doing that.

The same goes for the much talked about “R” word. Is it politically incorrect to use it? Certainly. Is it an artist’s responsibility to fulfill their vision no matter what? Absolutely. So what’s the deal here? Well, “Tropic Thunder” had the guts to point out Hollywood’s absurd treatment of the mentally challenged in mainstream movies. Stiller’s character plays a “simple” farmhand in a movie to prove his acting range, but the project is a total flop. OK. Excellent point. But then “Tropic Thunder” makes the mistake of overplaying the joke. Stiller brings it back as a set piece midway through the film and the satire starts losing steam. This wasn’t the plot point to pad the screenplay, and that’s why some well meaning folks with picket signs are walking in front of some cinemas right now.

Then there’s Tom Cruise.

What, you hadn’t heard that Cruise makes a stunning appearance in “Tropic Thunder?.” Of course you have, it’s the worst kept “surprise” appearance of the summer. So, Cruise gets himself all dressed up as a odious, foul-mouthed, movie mogul. Balding, hairy, bad clothes, bad jewelry, loud, obnoxious … such a departure for Mr. Hollywood. Big deal. Anyone with an ounce of acting ability could have played the role … yell a lot, drop some f-bombs. We’re supposed to be impressed that it’s Cruise doing it. I’m not. To me it comes off as mostly desperate and pathetic. He’s like Invader Zim … “look at me I’m human, I’m normal.” No dice.

Still, I do want you to see “Tropic Thunder.” It’s a great movie to talk about because it comes so close to being really good. Sometimes you learn more from the misses than the hits. It will do just fine at the box office, but it won’t approach “There’s Something About Mary” status. “Tropic Thunder” wants it too bad … and doesn’t reach far enough to get it.

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