In an April interview with Los Angeles Daily News journalist Glenn Whipp, Ben Stiller brightly confessed the source of his latest itchy comedy: a twenty-year-old grudge against the director of “Platoon.” “I got there, and Oliver Stone looked at me and, said, ‘You’re cute.’ ‘You’re cute,’ that was it. I never got to audition.” It’s hard to imagine those words in Anne Meara’s mouth, let alone Oliver Stone’s.
“Tropic Thunder,” the result of that long-nurtured chip on the shoulder, directed, co-produced, co-written and starring Stiller, finds him playing Tugg Speedman, a desperately needy, deeply shallow actor in an immensely over-budgeted Vietnam war movie to end all war movies. His cohort of pampered performers-turned-grunts includes Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a fat actor from a movie series called “The Fatties” who farts a lot, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). Among other characters, Nick Nolte as the author of the project’s source novel, is cruelly wasted; Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a young black actor, makes almost no impression whatsoever; and a pyrotechnics guy played by Danny McBride (“Pineapple Express”) is almost the only breath of oxygen in the rank result.
Did you hear the joke about Robert Downey, Jr.? He’s in blackface. He’s an Australian actor who wants shiny metal trinkets so badly he does the opposite of Michael Jackson’s self-mutilation: he has his skin darkened. Hey! Stop it. Don’t laugh yet. Stop. Where the tragic case of Jackson’s self-mutilation carries layers upon layers of historical and psychological implication, what does this movie do? Lazarus can’t stop speaking street! Until he slips and he’s speaking Aussie! Downey’s eyes, ordinarily one of his most expressive features, are seldom in play. Downey’s debut as a child actor was in a film by his father, whose most accomplished, rudest comedy was “Putney Swope,” in which a black man is elevated to the heights of the advertising industry in 1969. Memorable line: “Putney is confusing originality with obscenity.”
Speaking of obscenity, Tom Cruise plays a grotesquely fat, hairy, bald middle-aged studio executive whose dance moves are as repulsive as his “Risky Business” ones were frisky. But it turns to pissy business when you discover that his character—Les Grossman, is that an Albanian name?—is like a child actor trying, badly, to improvise Mametian swears. “Fuck shit cocksucker shit!” isn’t quite as funny as, say, this genius bit from “American Buffalo”: “Only, and I’m not, I don’t think, casting anything on anyone: from the mouth of a Southern bulldyke asshole ingrate of a vicious nowhere cunt can this trash come. And I take nothing back, and I know you’re close with them.” Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux come within at least a galaxy’s distance of that outburst with Jack White sweating strung-out inanities about a “hobo’s dick cheese” and vivid descriptions of the gay sex he’ll perform on the other characters if they just untie him and feed him blow. Grossman’s hands and wrists are made up with the most skin-cracking, angry pink-white-flaking eczema. And the character might as well take a shit in the middle of the floor in scenes where he compulsively gyrates his woman-hipped bottom in the audience’s face.
“Tropic Thunder” is the kind of heavy meta that might work in sketches, such as the short-lived “Ben Stiller Show,” shot on a budget of a dollar and a dime. But as a want-to-be-painfully-hip comedy about soul-killing horseshit, it manages handily to be more the thing itself than its reflection. The reasons some writers claim to resent movies like “Fight Club” and “The Dark Knight”—that somehow it’s insincere for an artist to make a decamillion-dollar movie that satirizes consumer culture or that suggests the entire political culture has gone over to the “dark side” of brutal, fearful, vigilantism, is one I seldom feel attracted toward. “Tropic Thunder”? Twenty years of overcontemplation of old ideas in hundred-million-dollar full flower.
While there is much sautéed in the behind-the-scenes pandemonium of “Hearts of Darkness,” Eleanor Coppola, George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr’s documentary about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” not a single instant strikes as cleanly in human, humorous, behavioral or poetic grace as the outtake of Marlon Brando working his wind through an arch peroration, pausing, gacking and saying, much as he asks, “Milk Dud?” in “The Formula,” in character and in beautiful cadence, “I swallowed a bug.”
John Toll, who less than three years ago was cinematographer on Terence Malick’s luminous “The New World,” is called upon to make images that look like they were shot in the Philippines in the 1970s and developed there in a ditch. But as images go, the ones of Ben Stiller I’ll always treasure? The look on his face in “Your Friends And Neighbors” when Catherine Keener shouts during coitus, “Is there any chance you’re gonna shut the fuck up? Let’s just do it. I don’t need the narration, okay?” And stabbing a neck vein with a hypodermic in “Permanent Midnight” with an aggrieved grimace of “Hey, dad! Looking at me yet?”