Knight at the Movies Archives
Ben Stiller returns to form, a closeted punk rocker gets a biopic
Ben Stiller hasn’t directed, starred in and written a movie since 2001’s Zoolander which didn’t click with the public upon release though
it’s built a healthy cult following since. Now he’s pulled off the triple threat again with Tropic Thunder (co-writing with Justin
Theroux). But this time his comedic target is likely to be much more welcoming to the testosterone heavy group that makes up the
bulk of moviegoers. It’s no stretch to assume that these straight dudes would be more comfortable sitting through a spoof of ultra
violent war movies than one centered on male modeling (Stiller’s subject matter in Zoolander). So it’s a wondrous surprise to report
that the gay themed material in Tropic Thunder (and there’s plenty of it) drew not only the biggest laughs from the sea of straight
guys sitting around me at the suburban screening but that the laughs weren’t derisive in nature. Was I dreaming? Did these dudes
really just applaud wildly at the moment one of the macho characters embraced his gay sexuality? Has the culture shifted a tad
toward full acceptance out there in the hinter lands? Whether it has or hasn’t (and boy I hope it has), Tropic Thunder is one hell of a
Stiller and Theroux’s script lampoons the shooting of a big budget war epic (Rambo, Commando, Platoon, etc.) on location and the duo
easily skewer the excesses and the inflated egos that pictures like these are noted for (Apocalypse Now, the most infamous example
gets one nod of recognition after another). Stiller (with his hot biceps flashing in every scene) plays Tugg Speedman, an aging
action star whose one attempt at acting redemption (the “heartwarming” story of Jack, a village idiot) has flopped. Tugg’s co-stars
are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a struggling drug addict famous for his fart comedies and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), an
Australian method actor so committed to his craft he’s undergone a skin pigmentation operation in order to play an African American
in the picture. Brandon T. Jackson plays Alpha Chino, the rapper crossing over into movies with the noxious sounding sports drink
and the secret. The film opens with a commercial for the noxious beverage and a batch of hilarious phony movie trailers (Satan’s
Alley in which the Aussie actor plays a gay monk secretly having an affair with another monk played by Tobey Maguire is a highlight)
leading into reports from entertainment shows about trouble on the set of the film.
Steve Coogan (who stars in the forthcoming Hamlet 2) plays the director who is frustrated by the phony emoting of his stars and the
perfectly timed special effects engineered by the eager beaver effects guy (Danny R. McBride who was hilarious in Pineapple Express
and scores again here). He decides to take the advice of the grizzled Nick Nolte, the Viet Nam vet with hooks for hands who is the
technical adviser on the film, to drop the actors into the middle of the jungle and force them to become the real soldiers they’re
portraying while shooting the whole thing with hidden cameras. Coogan announces this to the actors before making a spectacular
exit. Left to their own devices, the actor’s slowly realize that “the show must go on” and rise to the occasion.
The story is chockfull of movie industry in jokes and the audience gets the bonus of reveling in the over the top violence at the
moment the movie is spoofing them (a very canny device). Casting Tom Cruise as the verbally abrasive movie mogul is a bit of
inspiration and Cruise’s natural intensity works for once and he draws big laughs (especially at the end credits) in his fat suit and
bald pate. Bill Hader is also sneakily effective as his creepy, too devoted, closeted assistant. Stiller gives himself another smarmy,
phony egotist to play and pulls it off with his usual comic panache, while Black’s patented explosive energy works particularly well as
his character starts going over the deep end without a fix. But it is Downey who gets the biggest laughs as the insanely committed
method actor (the performance, coming after his spectacular turn in Iron Man, signals a huge career return for him).
Tropic Thunder is a spot on spoof – a black comedy that darkens as it goes along (there are aspects of Network here, though not its
prescient insight) – a large scaled comedy that doesn’t resort to the smarmy adult adolescence of the Judd Apatow movies for its
laughs and is easily just as entertaining if not more so.
Director-producer-co-screenwriter Rodger Grossman has spent almost 15 years trying to get his biopic of notorious punk rock icon
Darby Crash filmed and he’s finally made it with his debut feature What We Do Is Secret. Crash (played by Shane West from “E.
R.” and the Mandy Moore weeper A Walk to Remember) was the closeted leader of the seminal LA punk band The Germs. In 1975
Crash envisioned a five year plan (inspired by the David Bowie song) in which he would reach either superstardom or lasting notoriety
using the band (which didn’t know how to even play their instruments) as his vehicle. When a series of inflammatory concerts and
audacious acts failed to achieve the former, he opted for the latter by injecting himself with a fatal overdose. But even in death
Crash’s timing was off as John Lennon was murdered the following day and his suicide was barely noted.
Grossman’s movie, which is done in mockumentary style, also labors in the shadows of many other movies focusing on tragically
misunderstood/messianic musical wannabes and by now the punk milieu the movie inhabits seems tame. Unlike Sid & Nancy and
last year’s Control, the Germs music is to say the least, an acquired taste and Crash’s onstage theatrics, cribbed from his influences
(Bowie, Iggy Pop and others) aren’t remotely electrifying and the concert scenes aren’t in the least thrilling. And offstage the movie
never gives us much insight into what motivated Crash beyond a desire for fame or notoriety (an unrequited crush on a pizza faced,
homophobe he meets at a punk club notwithstanding).
West does what he can with this narcissistic, sick at the soul character but Grossman’s movie never delves much below the surface
and Crash seems like nothing more than an earlier, talent-less version of gay gossip monger, celebrity seeker Perez Hilton. Had
Crash lived perhaps that’s what he would have morphed into – a talentless hack doodling on photos of real celebrities in order to
achieve desperately desired celebrity status.
Tropic Thunder-What We Do Is Secret
Expanded Edition of 8-13-08 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.