Thursday, August 14, 2008
Review: Tropic Thunder
In this Apatow-dominated world, Tropic Thunder is simultaneously a frat pack triumph and the the final proof that the frat pack is finally, unalterably dead, swallowed by the juggernaut of comedy that is the Apatow brand. The triumph part is easy to explain: for the first time since Apatow and Co burst on to the big screen, the frat pack have a movie in theaters that is superior to the current Apatow offering: Tropic Thunder is better and funnier than Pineapple Express. That's something I didn't think was possible, but it is.
Now for the frat pack's death rattle. Although Stiller is acknowledged as the leader of the frat pack, the film's enormous cast includes: Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Steve Coogan, Matthew McConaughey, Bill Hader, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, and Danny McBride. The leader of the frat pack brings only himself and Black, a marginal packer, to the proceedings. Non-frat packers include Nolte, Downey, Cruse, Coogan, McConaughey, and Jackson. But here's the crucial bit: Baruchel is an Apatow kid, by way of Knocked Up and Undeclared. Hader was in Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express. McBride just hit the public consciousness in Pineapple Express, and was discovered by Adam McKay, who has never made a movie not produced by Judd Apatow. With Vaughn, Ferrell (who's had 3 movies produced by Apatow), and both Wilsons conspicuously absent, Tropic Thunder has Apatow players (3) outnumbering frat packers (1.5).
This film could not be a more fitting elegy for the frat packers' brief (2000-2007) run as the world's premier comedy creators. It's the least elegaic elegy ever. Like all the greatest frat pack movies, it is relentlessly crude, profoundly unsubtle, deeply strenuously, and riotously, gloriously, painfully funny. As a satire of Hollywood filmmaking, this story rings true: a troupe of Hollywood actors who, while filming a Vietnam War movie, get involved in a real military conflict. It smacks of the Hearts of Darkness fantasy that animates so much of our Hollywood dreams: the attempt at art which becomes life, which translates back into perfectly lifelike art. Compared to stories of Apocalypse Now, Stiller's washed up action hack, trying to go legit; Black's Eddie Murphy style prosthetics comic; and Downey's psychologically unstable method actor hardly even seem exaggerated. And they're surrounded by a troop of great actors in roles that fit them perfectly: Nolte as a deranged Vietnam vet, Coogan as a clueless director, McBride as a demolitions madman, Hader as a studio yes-man, Jackson as a rapper/drink spokesman, and Baruchel as a regular guy trying to make it as an actor.
I now write one of the strangest sentences in blogging history: Aside from the sublime Downey, the film's best performances come from McConaughey and Cruise (cue Universe implosion). McConaughey is great because, as a surface-obsessed dick, his turn as a surface-obsessed agent named "Pecker" requires no acting at all. Cruise is brilliant for the opposite reason; although he's a real life douche and studio head, his turn as a foul-mouthed, hairy, balding, giant-handed studio exec makes him into a completely different kind of studio head/douche.
Tropic Thunder (as you might have guessed by now) is not a movie that seems to need a critical evaluation, beyond "it's funny." Well, here it is: it's a very, very funny movie, packed to the gills with funny people doing what they do best or (quite enjoyably) what they do very well even though we had no conception they were capable of it. Every word Downey says is funny, and most of the rest of the movie is too. And Tom Cruise dancing to faux hiphop is possibly worth $10 right there.