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An electrifying surprise in the waning days of summer, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is easily the funniest movie I've seen this year, a riotous high-octane side-splitter that delivers more laughs than a dozen standard studio comedies.

Stiller trashes L.A. (and Vietnam), Woody digs Barcelona 

Excess Hollywood

click to enlarge Nick Nolte on the set of the movie within the movie called Tropic Thunder, we think. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Tropic Thunder opens Wednesday throughout the Triangle.

An electrifying surprise in the waning days of summer, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is easily the funniest movie I've seen this year, a riotous high-octane side-splitter that delivers more laughs than a dozen standard studio comedies.

That should be recommendation enough, but Stiller's film turns out to be something else as well: the wittiest, most penetrating satire of Hollywood—and the whole set of cultural complexes that word signifies—since Robert Altman's The Player in 1992.

A big fan of Altman's film, I haven't been able to stop thinking of its parallels with Tropic Thunder since seeing the latter. In certain basic senses, of course, they are obviously very different. Where Altman's film was a modestly budgeted independent production aimed primarily at an art-house audience, Stiller's movie is a hugely expensive major-studio outing targeting a mass audience—and in summer, no less.

Other differences are even more profound. Though separated by a mere 16 years, the two movies blink at each other across a cultural divide that seems like it could be measured in geological epochs.

The Player belongs to a world of thoughtful New Yorker profiles of entertainment heavyweights and a jaundiced mandarin's view of Hollywood that stretches back to Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West. It is cool, ironic and distanced, lunging hard at the movie industry's essential mendacity while also maintaining its own bemused-hipster reserve.

Tropic Thunder, on the other hand, belongs to a world of Access Hollywood, YouTube, Sony PlayStation and Perez Hilton. (Not Paris, Sen. McCain: She's so 2007.) It is neon-colored, outlandish and utterly over-the-top, folding its shrewd and knowing send-up of Hollywood mores inside the lineaments of a raucously entertaining "action comedy."

I happened to see Tropic Thunder with a friend who's had an insider's view of the movie industry since the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Easy Rider. When I asked what he thought as we walked out, his first words said nothing about the film's satiric content but everything about its visceral impact. "Well," he replied, "it's loud and crazy."

It is indeed both things. Yet those qualities—which could well divide audiences along generational lines—should not distract from the fact that Tropic Thunder's satiric ambitions, intelligence and accomplishments are very comparable to The Player's.

Nodding to Grindhouse (last year's cleverest movie-movie), Stiller's film starts out with three hilarious faux-trailers for movies starring actor-characters in the movie we're about to see. We then jump into that movie, which concerns the filming of Tropic Thunder, a big-budget Vietnam war flick that looks like a demented mash-up of Platoon, Apocalypse Now and all of the Rambo movies, especially the most recent.

The war movie's lead is Tugg Speedman (Stiller), the world's No. 1 action star: Think Sylvester Stallone, neurotic and Jewish but still pumped. His recent box-office fortunes in freefall, Tugg is surrounded by a platoon of performers all attempting career transitions. They include: Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a renowned Australian method actor who's dyed his skin to play an African-American soldier; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a kind of latter-day Fatty Arbuckle with bleach blond hair; rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), whose nom de hip-hop is borrowed from the star of De Palma's Scarface; and the obligatory newcomer, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

These ditzy thespians' ordeal begins with a bang when a $4 million pyrotechnics display goes off while Tugg and Lazarus are flubbing a scene in front of their exasperated director, Damien (Steve Coogan). After the costly blunder flashes across the world's TV screens courtesy of entertainment news shows, the studio boss back home orders that Damien's face be smashed by a burly crew member, and he resorts to desperate measures: Searching for greater emotional realism, he leaves the five actors stranded in the jungle, surrounded by a swarm of mini-cameras meant to record their actions as they fight off fictitious Viet Cong and struggle heroically from scene to scripted scene.

The script is the first casualty, naturally. What do actors talk about when they're set loose in the jungle? Of course: their careers. Tugg, who recently tried to goose his career by playing a mentally challenged lad in a tear-jerker called Simple Jack, which critics called one of the worst films ever made, gets a bit of serious advice from Lazarus: "Never go full retard." The Aussie critics' darling adduces Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and Peter Sellers in Being There to prove that the best screen simpletons are played half-simple. Go the full measure and you risk landing in the deep doo-doo of maudlin overkill: i.e., Sean Penn in I Am Sam.

Framed by eruptions of gunfire that keep things in antic-hysterical ("crazy") mode throughout, these showbiz deliberations occasion some wonderfully deft comic work from Stiller and his cast, especially Downey (already a summer standout thanks to Iron Man), whose character can't stop acting African-American even when he's speaking as himself. But the story's actorly bungle-in-the-jungle isn't the only action that keeps Tropic Thunder in high gear. The movie's other comic front could be introduced by a title card: "Meanwhile, back in Hollywood...."

Movie-studio press notes are often voluminous and usually aim for completeness. Curiously, the notes for Tropic Thunder make nary a mention of two of the film's characters or the actors playing them. One is Tugg's agent, played by Matthew McConaughey. The other is the studio boss mentioned above, a bald, overweight psycho named Les Grossman, played by, of all people, Tom Cruise.

Paramount evidently meant Cruise's appearance to be a surprise, but thanks to the Internet the cat was out of the bag last spring. Still, Cruise is a surprise, because his performance—an Oscar nomination shoo-in—is such a masterful, unexpected coup. Stiller has given the actor credit for coming up with many of the touches that make the porcine character so striking, including the bald pate, ham-sized hands and penchant for dancing to hip-hop.

Reverberating with Cruise's widely publicized battle with Sumner Redstone and his own recent heading of United Artists, Les Grossman is a mogul's portrait etched in bile, easily one of the most corrosive caricatures of Hollywood power ever put on film. A sick bully given to obscene ranting and threats, the bespectacled player only seems to meet his match when Tropic Thunder's actors stumble into a Golden Triangle drug camp run by a gang of vicious smugglers. But when Grossman gets the merciless thugs on the phone, guess who can scream the loudest?

Ultimately, all of this adds up to something more than a very smart script (by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Coen) brilliantly executed. It's also a persuasive vision of what counts in Hollywood these days. In The Player, the first act's crucial event is the murder of a screenwriter who's just come out of a screening of De Sica Bicycle Thief. In Tropic Thunder's first act (minor spoiler ahead), the person who gets offed is the director.

Which is exactly our situation at the onset of cinema's digital era, no? The values of television having triumphed over the assumptions of auteurism, directors are disposable, leaving all power accruing to actor-stars and producer-moguls. The two groups are hardly equals. Rather, they exist in a kind of symbiotic (or parasitic) death embrace, with the weak identities and constant career uncertainties of one group enabling the avaricious, self-aggrandizing predations of the other. In between the psychological valences of these unstable opposites, of course, is the audience's own passive-aggressive relationship to movies built on fantasies of power and escape, control and surrender.

The Player, an independent auteur movie, could look at Hollywood from a skeptical distance, as if one could walk away from its illusions. Tropic Thunder knows that such distance is no longer possible; we are now immersed in the entertainment industry's pervasive soup of images and insinuation 24/7. Even to begin to critique the situation, one must perhaps be as diversified as Ben Stiller is here: star, director, writer, producer. And that critique has to happen within the system, since there's no longer any escaping it.

It sounds like a long shot almost by definition, but Stiller pulls it off with remarkable skill and grace: We get to interrogate Hollywood's illusory pleasures even as we enjoy them.


click to enlarge Cigarette with Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona - PHOTO BY VICTOR BELLO/ THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
  • Photo by Victor Bello/ The Weinstein Company
  • Cigarette with Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona opens Friday in select theaters.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not the name of a new Eurovision pop star. It is the snappy shorthand title of Woody Allen's latest film, which in a less hurried age would have been too-obviously titled Vicky and Cristina Go to Barcelona.

Given that, you will not be surprised to learn that the film concerns two young best friends, conventional Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and romantic Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who travel to Spain for the summer and get into various sorts of mischief.

My snappy shorthand review of the film says that it's middling Woody, who's working here in expanded-New Yorker-short-story mode. A comedy that has its serious side, as well as dashes of romantic melodrama, VCB belongs to the recent spate of movies in which the once Manhattan-bound director discovers the attractions of European cultures and financing.

The problem with VCB is not Barcelona, though the scintillating city is depicted strictly in glossy tourist-brochure fashion. The problem is Vicky and Cristina. They are cute and lively, but boring—and Allen seems to realize it as the film rolls on.

The solution to the difficulties they present—at least a partial one—appears in the form of Spanish actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who respectively play a lusty artist and his crazy ex-wife. Both characters are passionate Hispanics—a cliché, but the actors' talents and vivid presences seem to inspire Allen. The film leaps to life every time they are on screen, especially together.

In the end, VCB doesn't come off as a mere touristic lark or by-the-numbers filmmaking exercise. Allen seems to have discovered something—like Columbus in reverse—in these two wonderful Spaniards. We'll see if he explores the territory further in a future film.

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