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Fatwah / Gloats / August 15, 2008

Is Downey the greatest actor alive playing the greatest actor alive?

If you haven’t seen Tropic Thunder yet, go now. There are scenes in it so hilarious the whole audience goes into laugh-convulsions for minutes at a time, and you’re only going to participate in that “maybe-humanity-isn’t-so-bad-it-does-comedy” phenomenon about a dozen times in your life, so why are you still reading this review? Go! Go!

For those of you who’ve seen it already, is there some way, do you think, to get Robert Downey Jr. an Oscar for this thing? Maybe a write-in campaign? Downey’s gotta be the most stupendous actor in the Year of Our Lord 2008. You don’t dare take your eyes off him, he’s so inventive, ricocheting with casual ease between showy and subtle, sliding eerily through layers of multiple roles he’s playing. Comedy reveals him as great. So many of his lines aren’t funny in themselves (“Have you been talkin’ to me this whole time?”, “What did happen here?”), or maybe they’d be mildly funny if someone else said them (“You’re shredded like a julienne salad.”), but he says them and you’re slain.

In Thunder Downey’s playing Kirk Lazarus, a pompous multi-award-winning Australian actor who proclaims, “I don’t drop character till I’ve recorded the DVD commentary.” It’s a rip of Russell Crowe that’s so devastatingly accurate Downey might want to watch his back at the next Hollywood party. You ever notice how in heavy dramatic moments Russell Crowe gets extra mileage out of his big, unblinking, blue-green-eyed stare at the camera? Well, Downey noticed. As Lazarus, he’s got these huge iridescent blue contact lenses practically popping his eyes out of his head, and I’d swear he never blinks once in Tropic Thunder’s 107 minute running time. Maybe he can’t blink with those Frisbee-sized contacts in there. His character gets introduced in a trailer for a movie called Satan’s Alley, about a medieval Irish monk falling in love with a fellow cowl-wearer (played by Toby McGuire), and the somber pop-eyed gazes are so funny I missed half the next scene—couldn’t hear it over the laughing.

Lazarus undergoes some sort of surgical skin dye and gets dark brown Frisbee-sized contact lenses to play the role of Lincoln Osiris, a black member of a Viet Nam platoon, and loses himself entirely in his acting process. (“I know who I am! I’m the dude playin’ the dude disguised as the other dude!”) This fantastically clever portrait of the gruff black guy with the soul, which I didn’t even know was a cliché till I saw Downey do it and then it was obvious, would probably have caused a lot of controversy had it not been overtaken by the “Retardgate” scandal. Various groups are protesting Thunder’s insensitive characterizations of mental disability, especially the one by Ben Stiller who, as fading action star Tugg Speedman, makes a failed attempt at thespian legitimacy by donning buck-teeth and a bowl haircut and starring in a movie called Simple Jack. But once again it’s Downey who makes the really memorable mark: he delivers a devastating comic monologue on the poor judgment of a fellow actor’s going “full retard” in an attempt to win awards, when everybody who’s seen Rain Man or Forrest Gump knows you have to find a way to moderate the level of retardation portrayed.

Tropic Thunder is about a bunch of Hollywood actors making a big Viet Nam war movie that’s going totally off the rails. Besides Lazarus and Speedman, there are Jeff Portnoy of the comedy franchise The Fatties (Jack Black), a heroin addict who experiences memorable withdrawal while on location; Bambie-eyed newbie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel of Knocked Up and the late, lamented TV show Undeclared); and rap star-entrepreneur Alpa Chino (stand-up comic Brandon T. Jackson). There’s a crazy attempt to salvage the movie by macho screenwriter/memoirist John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte, looking just like his mug shot) and desperate Brit director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan): they get the idea of achieving gritty realism and staying under budget by dropping the actors into the jungle and letting them act their way out of it while filmed by cameras hidden in trees. Needless to say, this doesn’t work out well. Monitoring the production are Speedman’s agent Rick “The Pecker” Peck (Matthew McCounnaghy, or however you spell his damn name) and sociopathic producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise in full bald-and-pudgy make-up, with some nice dance moves).

The whole movie looks great, shot with immense conviction by cinematographer John Toll, who gets the green-black jungle colors and the precise speckling of dirt on actor/soldier faces that we’ll all recall from Apocalypse Now and Deer Hunter and Platoon and all their imitators over the years. In fact, we seem to have a subgenre developing here, comedies that spoof the hell out of macho action films and war films and then suddenly veer into action sequences that are played with weird seriousness (Hancock, Pineapple Express), or at least with such intense investment in primo stunts and explosions that the spoof elements get temporarily sidelined (Hot Fuzz, Thunder).

There’s even a claim by a Village Voice reviewer, Robert Wilonsky, that Tropic Thunder is so noisy and violent it’s “…just another action movie pretending it’s not just another action movie.” This is a stupid comment, as are most comments by Village Voice reviewers. They make for good mocking, though. They’re all so completely constipated, those guys, it hurts when they laugh. So they have to willfully misunderstand comedies, which can never, ever be recognized as funny. They can be “appreciated” as satire, perhaps, but that doesn’t require any laughing, just a kind of rictus smirk, or at most a slight snuffling noise denoting lofty amusement. And hardly anything qualifies as successful satire, either, so even that risky snuffling has no chance of expanding into an actual, out-loud HAH ha ha ha HAAA!! (I’m telling you, the scene where Jack Black is tied to a tree, you’re just gonna die. This guy behind me was hooting like a crane or something.)

Other critics, too, are fretting about the kind of humor Tropic Thunder offers, i.e., the funny kind. Here’s Kenneth Turan of The LA Times summing up the deplorable state of the human condition vis a vis comedy today: “It would be easier all around, obviously, if we lived in a culture where the potentially offensive and the undeniably comic weren’t linked as closely as they are, but contemporary moviegoers don’t have that choice.” Yes, it’s dreadful, dreadful that we contemporary types have lived to see the day when the offensive and the comic were linked. Who’d have thought such a thing could ever happen in Western Civilization? Would Aristophanes or Juvenal ever have stooped to anything so low as linking the offensive and the comic? Would Shakespeare or Dickens? Would Chaplin or Keaton? Nay, a thousand times nay! Studies show it was absolutely unheard of until that black day when There’s Something About Mary featured Cameron Diaz with a sperm-upsweep hairdo. Ben Stiller was in that movie, too, and it was supposed to be his sperm. Ergo, Ben Stiller ruined comedy forever, and we’re paying the price.

I’m going to pay the price again tomorrow at an early matinee of Tropic Thunder.

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