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I said, don’t go full retard! (l-r) Stiller and Downey, Jr in Tropic Thunder.

Bungle in the Jungle

By John Brodeur

Tropic Thunder

Directed by Ben Stiller

 

Let me get this straight—people are protesting Tropic Thunder because of Simple Jack, the fake-movie-within-a-movie in which an action-adventure star plays a mentally handicapped farmhand in a blatant attempt to win Oscar votes? Where were those people when Radio came out? (And what do I mean, those people?)

Tropic Thunder, the long-gestating brainchild of actor-director Ben Stiller (the idea reportedly has been floating around since 1987), is a parody of all things Hollywood; in that way, it’s also a parody of itself. It’s a kind of self-aware smirkiness that often goes over moviegoers’ heads, and the filmmakers know this, so they’ve filled the movie with so damn many jokes that it’s impossible to overanalyze.

A group of prima donna movie stars (Stiller as actioner Tugg Speedman, Jack Black as fart-comedy star Jeff Portnoy, and Robert Downey Jr. as Australian dramatic actor Kirk Lazarus) are the principles in the film adaptation of a Vietnam War memoir by John “Four Leaf’ Tayback (Nick Nolte). Due to the actors’ self-absorption, the film is “a month behind schedule five days into shooting”; in Tropic Thunder’s first sequence, a multimillion-dollar explosion is fired off while cameras aren’t even rolling. So Tayback convinces director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) to drop the actors in the jungle and shoot the film “guerrilla style.” Things don’t go as planned, and soon the actors—those aforementioned, plus hip-hopper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and rookie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel)—find themselves stranded, unsure whether or not they’re actually making a movie.

It’s nice to have another recent action-comedy-buddy flick, Pineapple Express, for comparison. While Pineapple never really was able to balance its aspirations, Tropic Thunder finds a happy medium by never dwelling on one element for too long. The film’s success hinges somewhat on the viewer’s ability to recognize when the proverbial fourth wall is being knocked down, or that it’s not really there at all. The film is successful because it rarely lets the viewer wonder—the editing is tight and fast-paced; the only shots that linger for more than a few seconds are, naturally, the explosions. Otherwise, it’s just gag upon gag upon gag.

It’s testament to this film’s ability to balance clever and stupid that the Simple Jack scenes are among the few times Tropic Thunder goes full-stupid—and that’s mostly due to Stiller. His Tugg Speedman is basically Derek Zoolander with an ammo belt; an actor with a wider range of expression might have been able to really dig into that extra layer, but Stiller makes the Simple Jack character just look like a bad retard joke. Which it is—but it’s still supposed to be satire, and that point is perhaps missed in Stiller’s bucktoothed portrayal.

Or maybe it’s just the other actors making him look bad. Downey, for one, is characteristically excellent. As the über-serious Lazarus, an actor who never drops character “until the DVD commentary,” he takes the role of black soldier Lincoln Osiris and runs with it. Downey simply owns the picture. It’s a brave and mesmerizing performance, one that will have you doing double-takes throughout. Meanwhile, Black gets to play to his Belushi-esque physical-comedy strengths, and the widely discussed cameo from Tom Cruise, playing against type in a way everyone only thought he was in Magnolia, is fantastically vulgar.

Tropic Thunder falls just short of being a convincing war-film parody, but its arsenal of laughs is enough to redeem it. Make sure you sit down on time—this film has the most succinct exposition of any movie you’ll see this year.

Four’s Company

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Directed by Woody Allen

The most explosive and sultry moments of Woody Allen’s new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, occur when artists and former spouses Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) engage in bilingual verbal combat. The chemistry between these two swell-looking performers is palpable; their sparring, in both its nature and substance, speaks to the central conflict in this tantalizing film, which is the struggle between passion and security. Onlookers, such as Juan Antonio’s new lover Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), are left to stare in bewilderment at this seesaw relationship of reunions and bitter separations. Cristina’s no-nonsense friend Vicky (Rebecca Hall), herself a victim to Juan Antonio’s considerable charms, struggles to maintain some sort of balance between that which she knew and expected—namely, marriage to businessman Doug (Chris Messina)—and the abandon of Juan and the enchantment of Barcelona.

Having freed himself of the constraints of the Upper West Side intelligentsia (and the not-so-different England of his last three films), Allen has rediscovered his gift in Spain. This is in part, perhaps, because the idea of artists working in relative comfort, enjoying lots of wine and good food with friends, and not really having to punch a clock, seems believable there. Gone is the relentless angst, but this may be because Allen has thankfully removed himself from the screen. Instead, we have interesting characters who don’t conform to anything we’ve seen him do before. In particular, both halves of the Barcelonan marital equation are fascinating: talented, compelling and potentially damaging. While Juan Antonio at first seems like just another gigolo, we ultimately realize that’s way too simplistic, and while Maria Elena appears capable of hurting herself and others, she is also generous, especially in how she helps the rudderless Cristina find her muse.

If there’s anything vaguely disturbing about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s Allen’s misogyny. Clearly, he relates to the character of the artist, and clearly, he wants us to understand that no artistic genius can be saddled with anything so conventional as marriage or monogamy. To that end, Vicky’s Doug, who is “in business” and—egad—interested in establishing a cushy Westchester home for her, comes off as a complete tool; this makes Vicky’s reluctance to leave him seem a major letdown rather than something that makes sense for her. (To be fair, Hall is masterful in depicting her character’s warring emotions, so that when she makes her final decision, it seems like a natural progression.) Juan Antonio’s choices of bedmates are all delectable, and, in the end, very understanding about each other. This is fine, but it does come off at times as if Allen is admonishing those who criticized his personal choices, or his obvious delight in working with nubile young things like Johansson.

It is the central performances that serve to get our minds out of the gutter and into a realm where the possibility of great beauty is a reality. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that rare modern movie in which thoughts and intellect are as much a part of the proceedings as sex and violence. While Vicky’s choice of master’s thesis—Catalonian identity—seems, at first glance, quaint, it becomes apparent that she truly is moved by a culture vastly different from her own. Cristina, who expresses her desires in terms of what she doesn’t want, may at first seem like the dumb blonde who gamely beds anyone remotely interesting; but it becomes clear that she, too, has a vision and a talent that begins to blossom in the foreign environment.

Sadly, Patricia Clarkson is largely wasted as an expatriate living in unhappy splendor. As with many Allen films, there are a few too many characters who, while perhaps serving the purpose of a Greek chorus, don’t exactly add to the whole.

—Laura Leon


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