MoviesToday with Eric German | Sunday, 28 September 2008

Saving a send up

Six years after his disastrous wannabe satire of the fashion world, Ben Stiller tries to send up pampered and narcissistic movie stars and the Rambo type of action war films in Tropic Thunder but he’s only halfway successful.
Stiller plays Tugg Speedman whose career will be over if his new film, which is based on a 1969 war mission in Vietnam, is as bad as his previous one,
His co-stars are Kirk Lazzarus, a perfectionist Australian actor who’s already won five Oscars; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), the usual hip hop singer trying to muscle in on the film business; young, bespectacled Kevin Sandusky (Jay Burchel) whose career hasn’t helped him get laid and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) a gross-out comedy actor whose jelly beans turn out to be drugs.
The film’s director (Steve Coogan) is British, inexperienced and, unable to control Speedman, he gets chewed out by studio mogul Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise).
Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the actual survivor on whose book the film is based, persuades him to leave the actors stranded in the jungle after setting up several hidden cameras to capture the action. But the actors get caught up in a war with a heroin-producing army with real guns.
Stiller also co-wrote, co-produced and directed Tropic Thunder but instead of making a genuine send up, he simply copies characters and situations from previous war films and he tries to ridicule them by taking them over the top.
One such instance is its excessively gross and literal guts and gore sequence which comes across as a distasteful lampooning of Saving Private Ryan.
Jack Black gets second billing but he gets very few opportunities. The characters of Sandusky and Chino don’t fade into the background; they never make it to the foreground and Stiller’s performance relies too much on posturing and facial distortions.
The film is saved by Robert Downey Jr. who provides an impeccably detailed comical take on a white actor playing a black character right down to his ghetto-sounding voice. His assured performance is as admirable as it’s funny and he dominates the film. Nolte is perfectly cast as the grizzled authentic hero.
In an unexpected turn, Cruise is sensational as the terrorising, money-worshipping studio big shot. He only has a two-scene supporting role and, apart from his voice, he’s unrecognisable as he’s made to look fat, bald and bearded.
With the extreme make up eliminating the actor’s good looks and screen persona, Cruise’s hilarious one-man parody is that much more of an achievement.
Tropic Thunder may be a send-up but Stiller takes the action scenes seriously and the climactic long, spectacular and action-packed raid on the drug lord’s fortress is so well choreographed and exciting that it puts most of this summer’s weary blockbusters to shame.

The bliss of being stoned

In between smoking one joint and another, Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) serves subphoenas and hangs out with his 18-year-old high school girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard).
One night, on his way home from his drug dealer friend, Saul Silver (Jess Franco), he sees a man being shot to death by drug lord Ted Jones (Gary Cole) and Carol, a corrupt female cop (Rosie Perez).
Dropping his ‘roach,’ Dale drives off but the roach is identified by Jones as Pineapple Express, a new strain of drug that’s only available from Red, the drugs middle man (Danny R. McBride) who has only sold it to Saul. Dale and Saul go on the run and Red becomes involved too.
The above plot outline gives the impression that Pineapple Express is a madcap stoner comedy but it’s nothing of the sort because in adapting Judd Aptow’s story, screenwriters Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have tried to construct a set of dialogue sketches around this very slender premise.
The problem is that the humour is minimal and often non-existent while the sketches concerned drag on for too long and serve no purpose other than to repeat at greater length the initial and only couple of verbal and physical jokes.
The script is under developed because it isn’t taken any appreciable distance from its point of departure so the film gets stuck in its own shallowness and very limited ambitions.
Worse still, the lack of any real humour, especially in the overlong first scene shared by Dale and Saul makes the film’s earlier section look and sound like an extended commercial for the ‘bliss’ of drug smoking.
Former indie filmmaker David Gordon Green directs as if this isn’t a film but the straight forward recording of bunch of theatrical acts. Surprisingly he turns cinematic during the film’s two action sequences, a wild car chase and a big shootout at Jones’ drug growing headquarters where all the parties converge along with an Asian gang that wants to take over Jones’ operation.
Nearly all the performances are good. In fact, they’re so good that they inadvertently emphasise the shortcomings of the very lazy scripting. The film’s 111 minutes require a lot of patience without rewarding it.


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