Sunday, September 07, 2008

"Tropic Thunder": Ben Stiller's irreverent "mega" and "meta" comedy

Yes, Dreamworks (along with Red Hour and other production companies) is said to have invested $100 million or more in Ben Stiller’s mega-satire “Tropic Thunder.” Beside a “mega” something it is also a “meta film,” in that Stiller’s main “message” is supposed to deal with Hollywood’s making fun of itself. One another level, the obvious references to “Mash” (e.g., the guts) and even “Apocalypse Now” seem almost like a side show, mainly an excuse for mega-gags (some of them rather gross).

Most moviegoers have heard about the setup. Stiller and company (including Robert Downey Jr., Brandon T. Jackson. Jack Black, and “Just Legal” (‘s) Jay Baruchel (who proves he can be a bit macho here) are making an anti-war movie in present day Vietnam (actually, the film shooting was done in Kauai, Hawaii). The shooting gets behind and the studio is about to pull the plug. One of the directors decides to make an impromptu movie, when suddenly the crew are ambushed by drug lords, and have to survive and escape a POW camp in a manner similar to the script of the movie.

That’s where the “meta movie” comes in. They are supposedly filming one of the two books published about a particular 1969 raid, and the armless author figures into the plot. So, on one level, the movie could be viewed as an exercise in “daring reality” by presenting it publicly in fiction, when suddenly a hostile party makes it happen. You talk about something and write about it, and suddenly you have to do it.

Yet, Stiller seems not to have that kind of moral reach. That brings up the subject of the notorious interchange in the jungle (after things have gone “wrong”) between Stiller (called Tugg Speedman) and another soldier, about those with disabilities. The conversation is existential and makes a few comparisons (mentioning “Rain Man”), and may use some “inappropriate” words. The writing is tricky but pointed, and funny in a sick way. The audience was laughing (at a Regal cinema on a Sunday night there were perhaps 50 people). Stiller says he is making fun of attitudes in Hollywood. But that might be more convincing had the conversation occurred before the plot turn. (There is a little of that conversation earlier.) Anyway, we know that some people wanted to boycott the film, but the public seems to have forgotten it. A relevant point, for me at least, is that in war, especially Vietnam where we had a draft, a lot of times the "fittest" young men bear the sacrifice for others.

Material is viewed as inappropriate often with regard to a particular community in which a film or book or other artistic literature is developed and exhibited. I had a problem like this with a screenplay that was on my own domain. A substitute teacher was depicted as giving in to the advances of a student, winding up in prison and dying after some potentially false accusations while the student prospered. In another sequence early in my story, the substitute teacher refused to work in a potentially custodial assignment with a disabled student because he feared that an arcane provision in a federal law (connected to the military anti-gay policy – briefly alluded to in one crude passage near the end of this film) could cause him legal complications, but also because the sub felt humiliated by being asked to appear in swimming gear in the pool in front of students (he felt “ambushed” by the request). A couple of schools where I worked were very “offended” when they found the material on the web. But I maintain that it all a matter of context and intent, and the world that the writer believes that he lives in. Stiller seems to live in a world where anything goes. But I hope he appreciates the idea that not everyone does. All that said, somehow Ben Stiller comes across to me as someone who could be an 11th grade history teacher!

Technically, and in terms of costume and makeup, the film is quite remarkable. There are even some effects reminiscent of the “Final Destination” movies. Tom Cruise plays the greedy studio executive Les Grossman, who is made up as bald and covered with glued-on fake ape-like body hair. During the end credits, Les actually does a “Risky Business” dance. On the other hand, Stiller’s chest, at least, has been shaved because it belongs, almost literally in one place, to his captors.

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