Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tropic Thunder

I had an interesting experience Tuesday night. The last time Michelle and I went to a movie, a couple of theater personnel came in handing out passes for a free movie. The free movie was an advanced screening for the Ben Stiller directed film, Tropic Thunder. I'd always wanted to be part of a test audience but had not idea how you got into these things. Now, I knew.

So stoked to be part of a test screening, I feared that I might lose my objectivity. Would my brush with fame cloud my vision? I needn't have worried. Tropic Thunder is a turd ... albeit an ambitious one. We were asked to fill out surveys before and after and our every guffaw was dutifully noted by studio types. A bit about the movie:

Ben Stiller says "Tropic Thunder" is a "a comedy about five actors who go on location and find themselves relying on their boot camp experiences when they get stuck in a real war-like situation." Black will play Jeff "Fats" Portnoy, an overweight gross-out comedian, who's forced to kick his drug addiction while filming on location in the jungle. Downey Jr. will play Kirk Lazarus, the greatest actor of his generation and a four-time Oscar winner ... and Stiller plays Speedman.

The movie-within-a-movie turned real premise has been done before (and better) but in a different setting, Galaxy Quest.

This was first experience with an advanced screening. This was actually the first audience viewing of this movie anywhere. Lucky us. At this rate, we'll be the last.

It's trying to be too much. Is it a comedy? Is it a satire? Is it a spoof? Is it an action movie? Is it a drama? It has no idea what it wants to be. It makes fun of movies like Apocalypse Now, Rambo and Platoon and in the same breath celebrates them with vulgar language, violence and gore. All that it manages to do is show why those movies are better than Tropic Thunder. There are as many F-bombs in this movie as any Judd Apatow movie (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). But there the similarity ends. Apatow is good at the laughs and heart coming organically out of a natural scene. Every attempt at a laugh or profanity in Tropic Thunder seems forced.

The movie also mocks the insecurities and foibles of Hollywood actors (which is not a bad idea for a premise) ... but then those very same actors are in the movie - Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, etc. Is that supposed to be ironic? If it was a better made movie, that would seem clever. But instead, it seems like Stiller is trying to have it both ways. There's a point past which you can't go and still claim any kind of artistic high ground. For example, clips of a movie made by Stiller's character seek to show how he chose to play a mentally handicapped person so he'd be nominated for an Oscar (like Forrest Gump or I am Sam). That would certainly be a valid criticism of a lot of real actors. But then Tropic Thunder milks those same scenes for laughs.

Or another instance is Downey's character who is acting in the movie within a movie in blackface. Wow. That sure was hilarious for C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man ... not. Somehow I can't see Spike Lee being happy about this role.

Again, I understand the point that Stiller is trying to make - that a lot of actors go through ridiculous physical transformations just so that they will be viewed favorably come Oscar time. But I really feel that this film goes too far and celebrates those actual things that it is trying to mock.

There are a lot of cameos in the movie (Nolte, Jon Voight,etc.), most notably Cruise - bald, hairy and in a fat-suit. And played way over-the-top. Think of his master-of-the-muffin character in Magnolia if the guy was 20 years older and had let himself go a bit. It's funny for a minute or two but then you start to get the feeling that this character is really just a part of Cruise's real personality.

Stiller's brand of humor just seems to be dated and tied to the era from which he was first popular - the early 90's. He's obviously got a lot of high-profile friends, but even they can't save this.

I know this movie will probably be edited and tightened up and tweaked before release (Aug 11 last I heard), but I don't think there is anything that they could do that would make me change my view of it. I'm not saying there are not laughs. I think Downey and Black are pretty funny a lot of the time. Just not enough. The movie has already had it's share of troubles - Owen Wilson was originally slated for the McConaughey role. And the movie has been bumped from it's original July release date.

I'm sure I'm violating some kind of protocol reviewing a movie that hasn't came out. But I'll forget about this film if I don't commit my thoughts to digital paper now. As far as I can tell, my review is the first review of this movie anywhere. Though, you will certainly find plenty of self-congratulatory blurbs like this from dubious sources (MTV):

With a cast including Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, and Matthew McConaughey (subbing in for Owen Wilson), it certainly has the pedigree to become a thunderous success. And if a rumored cameo comes together, the film could just cruise to classic status.

"... It’s about a bunch of movies stars, and a rapper/actor, who get cast in this Vietnam War movie and get sent over to Vietnam to make this film," grinned box-office heavyweight Ben Stiller, who directs and stars in the flick.

"Thunderous success", "classic status" ... yeaahhhhhh. Not a whole lot of objectivity there for a film the writer had not even seen. I noticed a couple of commenters on IMDb's page that had saw the same screening as I did ... and loved the movie. Obviously they went drinking before seeing the movie.

If you go see Tropic Thunder in August and hate it, you can't say that I didn't warn you.


Laura said...

Duly noted. I've never gotten into an advance screening like that. I've won passes to a pre-release, but we didn't give feedback.

This movie sounds pretty ridiculous. It probably sounded better on paper as a pitch.

And why does everyone forget that the movie-within-a-movie comedy was born from the Three Amigos!! I actually can't stand Galaxy Quest, but for some reason I love Amigos. I guess that just makes me a tad bit insane.

dbackdad said...

Ha-ha. I had forgotten about Three Amigos. Duly noted.

CyberKitten said...

Ben Stiller was in it. 'Nuff said.

dbackdad said...

... and wrote it, directed it and produced it. His stink is all over this one. And for that reason this movie will be the one that probably sinks him.

Scott said...

That synopsis alone sounds like a train wreck.

dbackdad said...

EW has an article on it that just came out. They have some of the same concerns I did but they still seem to be pumping up the film.

Tropic Thunder

Andrea said...

I screened the movie last night and I loved it. One of the funniest movies that I have seen in a while. Tom Cruise was halarious. I have been to a lot of screenings and I havnen't heard the audience laugh this hard in a long time.