Welcome to the Bungle
By Elbert Ventura

Tropic Thunder
Dir. Ben Stiller, U.S., Dreamworks

When it first came out in 1992, The Ben Stiller Show was like nothing else on TV, at least to this teenager. A wallow in Hollywood detritus and a loving deconstruction of pop idioms, The Ben Stiller Show was nuanced, knowing, and unapologetically geeky—which explains why it lasted all of 12 episodes. Yet the largely unseen series remains the most unadulterated product of Stiller’s comic imagination, a tonic to the numbing succession of slow-burn-nebbish roles that have come to define him. Like Albert Brooks, whom Stiller has cited as a big influence, Stiller presumes his audience’s pop literacy. He has shown a particular gift for spoofing the Hollywood hard sell—the best sketches and gags in Stiller’s shows and movies have been in the form of music videos, movie trailers, commercials, and biographical montages. His target has always been the entertainment industrial complex—its excesses, its fatuousness—and our unhealthy fixation with it.

Yet for all Stiller’s talent, his movies have never strayed far from the disappointing middle. After four directorial efforts, Stiller has yet to make a wholly satisfying picture. To be sure, there have been glimmers of intelligence and inspiration in his past films: the specter of derangement in The Cable Guy, the hilarious send-ups of celeb culture in Zoolander. (Reality Bites, his first movie, just plain bit.) But funny or incisive they may be in parts, not one can be called an unqualified success.

Nor can his latest film, Tropic Thunder. Entertaining enough and yet fatally compromised, it’s Stiller’s best movie, for whatever that’s worth—and probably the starkest reminder of the distance between his early promise and his current careerist track. The film-geek premise could have come right out of The Ben Stiller Show. In the jungles of Asia, a Hollywood crew films a war epic. But the mammoth production faces collapse as the neophyte director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) fails to control nature, special effects, and that most unwieldy of forces, actors. In an attempt to salvage the movie, Cockburn settles on an outlandish solution: he’ll plop the pampered leads in the middle of the jungle and shoot guerrilla-style. Within minutes of landing in the middle of nowhere, Cockburn steps on an unexploded mine. Seconds later, actual guerrillas appear, shooting real bullets at the actors. It takes the cast a little longer to realize that cameras are actually no longer rolling.

As with any good Hollywood war film, the actors are an unlikely assemblage. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is the gung-ho star eager to dive into the experience. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is an obnoxious, strung-out comedian who breaks under the strain of real life. The third headliner is Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar-winner whose Method verges on madness. For his role as a black soldier, the acclaimed Australian underwent a surgical procedure to make him look the part. The one actual black man in the cast is Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a hip-hop entrepreneur who can’t resist sneaking in plugs for his energy drink, Booty Sweat. Rounding out the squad is Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the relatively normal newcomer who actually knows something about the world outside Hollywood.

With its focus on actors and the movies, Tropic Thunder emerges as Stiller’s grand rumination on two obsessions, Hollywood solipsism and our pop education. At its best, his satire boasts a geek’s mastery of the nuances of performance and pop convention. One sketch on The Ben Stiller Show featured Daniel Day-Lewis’s Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans pitching exercise equipment, a funhouse concept that’s amusing enough but is elevated by Stiller’s caricature of Hawkeye’s New World accent (“the Mohican Master Two Thou-SAND”). Another sketch, poking fun at the Die Hard franchise, just about nails every detail of the movies, right down to the way Willis tilts his head when he shoots a gun. That grasp of Hollywood tropes is apparent before Tropic Thunder even starts, as a commercial for Booty Sweat and previews for movies starring Tugg (action blockbuster), Jeff (fart-driven comedy), and Kirk (Indiewood seriousness) play.

The rest of the movie doesn’t quite match the previews’ level of detail and execution, but one running joke keeps the laughs coming. Much has already been written of Downey’s performance, a thinly veiled knock at the Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis school of acting. But the satire of Method pretentiousness somehow transcends its gimmicky roots. Far from an idiot, Kirk is revealed to be a troubled soul striving for authenticity but confused about his own identity. When confronted by Alpa about keeping up the blackface even with no cameras around, Kirk can’t come up with an answer but grasps that the act is wearing thin on the one black man among them. (“Are we cool?” he sneaks in at the end of the conversation. “No!” says Alpa.) At once a poke at the insufferable Actor and a gloss on the white appropriation of black culture, Downey’s performance is as funny as advertised and more sophisticated than it has any right to be.

For all its pleasures, Tropic Thunder feels like a missed opportunity. Its occasional obscurantism notwithstanding, Stiller’s comedy has always been angled for mass appeal (it’s always been more Mad magazine than Albert Brooks in that way). In Tropic Thunder, that propensity has been amplified, no surprise considering the movie cost more than $100 million. Playing for the big crowds, Stiller tones down his tendency to geek out. What weirdness there is in the film is safely contained. Stiller’s Speedman, a caricature Stiller could have had fun with, is instead blandly dull; Black’s Portnoy, a parody of the obnoxious, hyperactive comedians, becomes what it skewers.

There is one other star in the film. As Les Grossman, the monstrous studio head, Tom Cruise is fat, arrogant, and foul-mouthed. Critics have hailed his over-the-top performance as a career resuscitation of sorts, but is there anything there beyond the freak-show novelty of Cruise as an angry, middle-aged Jew? People laugh at the sight of a balding Cruise grinding to a hip-hop song. But it’s an idea that should have been a throwaway, a grace note. In Tropic Thunder, Stiller milks it for all its worth, making room for not one but two Cruise dance “numbers,” both of which exhaust their comedic worth approximately two seconds in.

Stiller used to make fun of Tom Cruise (his sketch of Cruise doing a one-man stage show was inspired). These days, he can get Cruise to ham it up in his movie. Cruise’s preening is a monument to Stiller’s membership in the Hollywood elite—those scenes, and all the cameos here and in Zoolander, all but scream “They like me! They really, really like me!” Stiller’s never been particularly biting. Going for gentle mockery instead of scathing critique, his comedy evinces affection for that which it ridicules, which is certainly no sin. (Hot Fuzz, to take a recent example, shows how it’s done.) But becoming an insider has pushed his broad satire toward toothlessness. An insular, backslapping vibe permeates Tropic Thunder—it’s a movie that’s just itching to show you how much of a good sport everyone is for hazing Hollywood. The buzz coming in to the movie was how much offense it was causing. But the problem with Tropic Thunder is precisely the opposite: it doesn’t offend enough.