Controversial Action Comedy Is Ben Stiller’s Brainchild
You know you’re asking for trouble when you make a movie with a white actor in blackface wearing a lower lip extension who’s always talking jive jibberish, and with a mentally-challenged character who’s repeatedly teased about his disability. After all, in these more-enlightened times, it’s not exactly politically-correct to refer to a dimwitted boy as “the dumbest [expletive] that ever lived” or to have a modern-day minstrel mimicking African-American street vernacular.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that all the advance buzz for Tropic Thunder, written and directed by Ben Stiller, has focused on picket lines and boycotts, instead of on the basic question of whether or not the film is otherwise worthwhile. Regrettably, the teen demographic which finds such crass fare so irresistible probably could care less about the picture’s mean-spiritedness provided it keeps them in stitches. Therefore, at the end of the weekend, Tropic Thunder’s take at the box-office is likely to depend more on the degree to which kids enjoy its irreverent brand of humor than on if its redeeming qualities outweigh any insensitivity in its depiction of minorities.
Superficially, the storyline sounds innocuous enough. It revolves around a Vietnam War buddy flick being shot on location. Early on, we learn that each of the film’s five co-stars has his own selfish reason for participating in the project. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is trying to rebound from a poorly-received outing as the intellectually-stunted Simple Jack. Heroin-addicted Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) wants to overhaul his image after a kiddie hit filled with fat and fart jokes.
Australian Oscar-winner Kirk (Robert Downey, Jr.) likes the challenge of playing an African-American, while Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a hot hip-hop artist out to parlay his musical success into a screen career. Finally, there’s Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a virtual unknown who’s just happy to get his big break in a summer blockbuster.
However, disaster strikes soon after their arrival in Southeast Asia, when the director (Steve Coogan) is blown to bits by a land mine. It turns out that they’ve been mistaken as enemy invaders by bloodthirsty guerillas running a drug-smuggling operation. So suddenly, these clueless, pampered Hollywood actors suddenly have to fend for themselves in the jungle.
This, of course, proves to be easier said than done and, more importantly, provides plenty of fodder for a surprisingly clever satire of the war movie genre. For the aforementioned actor archetypes replace such classic army flick staples as the sage sergeant, the gung-ho grizzled veteran, the nerdy medic and the frightened raw recruit.
Yes, Tropic Thunder is an intelligent and frequently funny film with some profound points to make about the shallowness of the movie industry. Unfortunately, those relatively-subtle insights are destined to be lost on audiences too busy laughing at all the slapstick and cruel humor coming at the expense of minorities to bother appreciate any deeper message.
Next time, maybe Ben Stiller won’t feel a need to pander to the lowest common denominator by resorting to a profusion of profanity and the “R” and “N” words.