Monday, August 25, 2008

Simple Is As Simple Does, Jack

The suits over at DreamWorks must have been floored when they found out just who had decided to protest "Tropic Thunder." When being pitched a film that features a white man playing a black man, they probably foresaw controversy, but certainly not from advocates for the mentally impaired. "Tropic Thunder" explores the diverse careers of its fictional Hollywood actors, and this controversy has arisen from one film within this film. Writer/director/star, Ben Stiller's character, Tugg Speedman has hit a rough patch. His last film, "Simple Jack" was the worst of the exploitative, Oscar-pandering worst. About a mentally retarded farmhand, "Simple Jack" is clearly Stiller's attempt at criticizing Hollywood for such shameless exploitation.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this idea in and of itself. When juxtaposed with the film's handling of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as an Australian playing a black man, however, things become more suspect. Stiller treads very delicately with this potentially hilarious, potentially offensive premise. Every step of the way, Downey's character is put in his place by Brandon T. Jackson's character, a real black man. Consequently, the audience is never given a moment to become even slightly uncomfortable with the fact that it's watching a white man in blackface. The film is so careful condemn it at every turn that it is easy to forget that blackface can even be a bad thing. This all adds up to a running joke that is considerably less edgy than it may initially seem.

When Stiller is so cautious about potentially offending Blacks, it leaves me to wonder why he felt that he could be more lazy when it came to the mentally handicapped, and even Asians. At no point do any characters stand up and question the nature of "Simple Jack" as overtly as Jackson's character does the use of blackface. Similarly, the film's antagonists are a collection of savage, backwater Southeast Asians who are never given any depth and are never offset by a single sympathetic Southeast Asian character. Perhaps these details would not be so hard to overlook if the script had not been so excessively careful in other places. It leaves me wondering if Stiller is that much better than the people he is criticizing.

All of the controversy casts a bit of a pall over the film. There are, however, some truly hilarious moments. The set of fake trailers that precedes the film is dead-on satire and a true highlight. There is certainly fun to be had thereafter, but the plot lacks any real weight. Obviously, this isn't "Schindler's List," but there needs to be some sort of dramatic pull that gets viewers from one scene to another. Instead, the film rushes to get the actors stranded in the Vietnamese jungle and then doesn't know what to do from there. The finale is amusing, but rather forgettable. Shockingly, a cameo by a certain well-known Scientologist may be the film's biggest highlight. I'm no fan of his acting but, with a bit of makeup, he makes quite the bizarre, sleazy Hollywood executive.

Much has been made of the film's large budget. "Tropic Thunder" certainly looks like an expensive war movie, but I wonder how much that contributes to the comedy movie that we're supposed to be seeing. The opening sequence, which takes place within the movie these actors are making, is very convincing as a melodramatic, big-budget war movie. Thereafter, "Tropic Thunder" is a behind-the-scenes comedy. If this had been a straight parody, dramatic helicopter shots would have added to the experience. Here, however, such grandeur seems misplaced. Only occasionally does Stiller show any flare as a director or put his money to any comedic use. The ultimate fate of the film-within-the-film's director is very memorable, but it also looks like it was the cheapest effect in the film (and was all the funnier for it). Meanwhile, the pyrotechnics-laden finale certainly cost a few bucks, but only elicits a slight grin.

Ultimately, the film certainly could have done without all of the controversy but, even then, it would hardly have been remarkable. Like Stiller's last effort ("Zoolander"), this film will most likely hit the spot on lazy Sunday afternoons in cable replays, but it struggles to stand out in one of the best summer movie seasons in recent memory.

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