Let’s begin this review by demolishing any credibility I may have accrued over the years: I like Ben Stiller. Maybe not all the films he’s done–well, maybe only a few of the films he’s done, on reflection–but I think he’s a genuinely funny guy, and the projects he personally helms tend to make me laugh. And although he can really only do two characters–lovable loser and Zoolander–they’re not bad, as characters go.
Plus, the film is getting remarkably high scores on Metacritic. That, honestly, was something I instantly regretted seeing, certain that my only hope of truly enjoying the movie was to go in with expectations as low as possible.
My prescience proved correct, in this case. If I’d gone in expecting a run-of-the-mill Stiller flick, it would have been a revelation. Instead, I found it a very funny but often disjointed movie that, while well worth seeing, fell short of the gutbuster promised by some reviews.
Downey Jr. was amaaaaaaaazing; Stiller (as writer and directory) wisely opted to give most of the funniest material to his costars and play the straightman; Jack Black’s character came in a distant third in terms of interestingness (as Flickr calls it), and was often eclipsed by that of Brandon T. Jackson, whose banter with Downey Jr. composes the funniest scenes in the whole caboodle.
You never really feel like the four men are a cohesive group, but that is sort of the point: each is a self-absorbed actor, obsessed with himself and largely indifferent to others. Still, the lack of chemistry (aside from the Downey Jr. / Jackson friction), and the preponderance of action sequences as overblown as those they are presumably spoofing, sometimes make the film feel like a collection of comedy sketches
Also, the movie is awful. Unforgivably terrible and a blot on the film industry. Get your self to believe that before seeing Tropic Thunder and you’ll have a blast.
Now, let’s talk about the Simple Jack controversy for a moment. For those unawares, some folks have been demonstrating outside of theaters showing Tropic Thunder because, in the film, Ben Stiller plays a developmentally disabled character, and there are many usages of what the protesters refer to as “the r-word” (and then follow up with “meaning ‘retard'”, since otherwise you’d be going “which r-word? Republican?”)
I appreciate where these folks are coming from but, man, they are totally off the mark on this one. In context there is absolutely no ambiguity about who iTropic Thunder is making fun of: that is, actors who seek our roles in films such as Rain Man and i am sam in the explicit hopes of garnering an Oscar, rather than the disabled people they portray. In fact, it’s not even accurate to say that Stiller “plays a developmentally disabled character” in the movie–Stiller plays an actor who plays a developmentally disabled character, and is soundly mocked for that decision throughout.
Advocate Patricia E. Bauer acknowledges as much in this Washington Post editorial condemning the movie, but says “the studio was careful to build nuance and subtlety into the film’s racial humor … but there’s no on-screen presence countering the Simple Jack portrayal.” What she has failed to grasp is that the “never go full retard” scene, on which most of the criticism has been heaped, is exactly the on-screen denouncement she demands, with Downey Jr. exposing Stiller’s (and, by extension, Hollywood’s) shallowness for all the audience to see.
The controversy over Tropic Thunder is very reminiscent of that over The Last Temptation of Christ 20 years ago. In the latter instance, many religious folks were outraged that the film depicted Christ living a normal life–avoiding crucifixion, marrying, having children, growing old. Such a portrayal, they argued, denied Jesus his divinity. Yes, it did! That was the point! In the film (um, spoilers here, if you care), Satan temps Jesus with that life–everything we see of it is essentially a proposal put forth by the devil. But Jesus overcomes this last temptation and dies on the cross. By seizing on these scenes, and ignoring the rejection of them, protesters basically turned the meaning of the film on it’s head and then groused about its message.
So too with this movie. The Simple Jack scenes are offensive, but that’s a feature, not a bug. Indeed, much of Tropic Thunder is devoted to deconstructing just how offensive they are. And, as someone who has previously railed about the portrayal of developmentally disabled people on film, I am thrilled that Tropic Thunder pretty much guarantees that we won’t see another The Other Sister for a decade or more. Regardless of how you feel about “the r-word”, I think that’s something we can all applaud.