First things first: Ben Stiller's new movie Tropic Thunder, is neither as offensive as some feared nor as wry as I had personally (perversely?) hoped. In an age where repetitive, moronic attacks on the dignity of various groups are often met by tactical shows of manufactured outrage, Thunder, with its kitchen-sink jumble of provocations—blackface, Jewface, Southeast Asian stereotypes and the plentiful use of the word "retard"—could have been a memorable identity-related meltdown or a challenging satire on the order of Putney Swope (directed in 1969 by the father of Thunder co-star Robert Downey Jr.).
Instead of providing us with epic success or failure, though, Thunder is just boring and loud. The film is a prime example of the very Hollywood stupidity it pretends to satirize. Although I support the God-given right of any demo, group, segment or coffee-klatch to use their First Amendment privilege to protest against images they find offensive, picketing this expensive pile of "feh" is actually doing it a favor, as "political incorrectness" is Thunder's only selling point.
For those of you living off various grids, Thunder tells the high-slapstick (and high-grossout) story of a quintet of spoiled, self-absorbed actors who are stranded on the Vietnamese-Laotian border while shooting an ill-fated, Platoon-style war movie.
Director and co-writer Stiller plays a past-his-prime and under-talented action superstar named Tugg Speedman. Downey Jr. hams it up in blackface as a method-obsessed Australian thespian improbably playing an African-American sergeant. Jack Black shouts through a role as a heroin-addicted comedian known for Eddie Murphy-style, farts-n-fat flicks. Brandon T. Jackson tries to keep the movie real as a double-taking rapper/energy drink pitchman with a secret, while Kevin Sandusky rounds the group out as an eager, young bit-player who seems to be the only person who actually read the movie-within-a-movie's script. Matthew McConaughey phones in a turn as Speedman's half-loyal, half-craven agent, while Tom Cruise, wearing what must be an acre of fake chest and forearm hair, gives Thunder's best performance as a hip-hop loving, rage-aholic Jewish studio exec bankrolling the project.
Stiller's character bumbles around a jungle he mistakes for a giant set, and when he falls into the hands of a Mandarin-speaking drug gang, he and the other actor-slash-fakers step into character and—surprise, surprise—find their "real" selves. (Or, as Downey Jr.'s jive-talking character might put it, the rote capture and rescue hijinks give them a chance to find the real "dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude.")
The Asian stereotypes come into the picture thanks to the drug gang whose combination of viciousness and maudlin sentimentality is fast becoming a standard depiction of people from that part of the world. The word "retard"—as well as repeated pantomimes of Hollywood depictions of developmental disability at the level of a Wayans Brothers skit—come in via Simple Jack, an, er, differently-abled character Tugg Speedman once played in hopes of garnering an Oscar, only to earn enduring mockery. It turns out that a VHS copy of Simple Jack is the only movie in the drug gang's camp, so once the gang realizes who they've captured they force him to replay the movie over and over again. Stiller's bottomed-out action hero then finds his level among toothless brutes who shout "Make more stupid!" at him, when they aren't bawling like babies at his dopey stutter.
One gets the impression that Stiller had a much better movie in mind than he actually ended up shooting. Tropic Thunder has all the ingredients of what could have been a wickedly intelligent look at how actors go about the strange business of, as one character says, "slipping into another man's skin."
Stiller's underappreciated boob-tube send-up The Cable Guy shows he has the chops to make such a satire, but Thunder bogs down almost immediately in trying to stage the big-budget bombast and pyrotechnics that it wants to both satirize and ride all the way to the top of the summer box office. (Make more stupid, indeed.) Unlike The Cable Guy, where the extended dance between leads Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick allowed Stiller to wade into unexpectedly deep waters, the characters in Thunder are just one-sentence sketches unable to engage or provoke, let alone amuse.
Curious for a film that seeks to mock big-budget FX, the most telling moments are the ones built around make-up and prostheses. Although Stiller's buck-toothed Simple Jack is just too silly to provoke much discomfort or outrage, there is something off-putting about how Downey Jr's main job in the movie seems to be, as the late Bernie Mac used to put it, to "say the things you think but are afraid to say."
Half of the Thunder's "best"—which is to say, most outrageous—lines go to Downey Jr., who delivers bon mots about homosexuality, mental illness and racism with that special, reckless brio that only a white guy imitating a black guy gets to pull off on screen. Since the earliest days of blackface minstrelsy, putting on the cork was always a liberating experience for white men, the pantomime of blackness allowing them to get open in ways that social convention denied both them and flesh and blood black men. (As if to underscore this point, the black rapper in Thunder is only weighed down by the demands of his own, peculiar form of black male drag.)
But Downey Jr. turns out to be just a feint. The most perverse and fascinating form of well—not blackface, but somethingface—is Tom Cruise's turn as the screaming, diabolical, Jewish rap lover. (Talk about dudes playing dudes disguised as other dudes!) With his sweating forehead, thrusting pelvis and all-American amorality where pimpology has seemingly met and turned out Friedrich Nietzsche, Cruise's character could have carried a whole movie on his fat, disgusting back. It would have either been the best comedy of the year or the worst, but either way Cruise's character suggests the genuinely risky film the otherwise pedestrian Tropic Thunder could have been.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles-based writer.