I really liked the idea of Grindhouse: let’s have a double-feature – an A-movie and a B-movie, written by two directors fluent in the language of cinema, and put some fake ads in-between, just like the good ol’ days. It’s a pity American audiences didn’t share my enthusiasm – otherwise the film(s) wouldn’t have reached me in its butchered state. See, it turns out that firstly, people didn’t want to sit through some trailers, a movie, some fake trailers, and then another movie. Secondly, Grindhouse was floundering at the box office, presumably due to the former. And thirdly, people were leaving the theatre after Planet Terror (the first film in the double-feature), because they didn’t *get* it. It wasn’t that they didn’t *get* Planet Terror as a parody of those ridiculous 80s action films with black-and-white-evil terrorists – though presumably they didn’t get that either – audiences simply thought that the film was over, put their coats on and trundled on home, never mind the fact that they paid to see a film called “Grindhouse” and this film was clearly called “Planet Terror”. So while Tarantino and Rodriguez may yet be fluent in Cinemanese, they clearly weren’t fluent in the language of the common people. Hollywood’s solution? Cut it in two, and market the halves as two separate films. Whether this made things better or worse is uncertain, and depending on who you ask (a Hollywood exec or a film critic), the answers might differ. One thing’s for certain, though: Tarantino and Rodriguez intended Grindhouse to be a double-feature, both as a parody of Hollywood action films and B-movies, and as a tribute to the old school ‘grindhouse’ features they used to enjoy in their formative years; and the Average Joe just didn’t get it. Was it the film’s fault or the Average American’s fault? I suppose we’ll never know, though perhaps it would have been wiser and more prudent to test this little entertainment experiment on a smaller market first. One thing’s for certain: Grindhouse failed to execute its intentions as a film.
Grindhouse: surprisingly too high-brow.
Tropic Thunder succeeds where Grindhouse failed. See, it turns out that while ‘people’ didn’t want to sit through real trailers, a movie, fake trailers, and another movie, they *do* want to sit through real trailers, then fake trailers, and a movie. Pure genius. Furthermore, it turns out that people do enjoy parody that is unabashedly self-aware, and will turn out in droves to watch a movie about movies, or more specifically, a movie about a bunch of people making a movie featuring fictional big-name stars played by real big-name stars. Scratch that, it’s a movie about a bunch of people making a fictional war movie based on a book about a real war, featuring fictional Hollywood actors played by real Hollywood actors that have been thrown into an actual warzone in an effort to bring out more authentic performances. Sound confusing? On paper, sure [and prepare to be even more confused by the end of this review], but in execution, surprisingly not. Allow me to use an example from classic literature – hey, if you’ve made it this far, you’re ready for this – Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Now Don Quixote was a farmer in 16th Century Spain who, having read a lot of romantic literature, went completely barmy and decided to leave behind his provincial life to become a knight errant. Don Quixote the book, however, is a real novel by a real writer masquerading as a fictional history written by two fictional authors - one of which refers to the other in derogative terms – detailing his ridiculous quests to comedic effect. The novel itself, though regarded by many as romantic literature, was written as a parody and perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of reading too many romance books, though it’s an exercise in frustration trying to determine whether or not the caution itself is also a parody. Here’s the real kicker: Don Quixote, though fictional, believes himself to be real, and believes his adventures to be real, and though he receives word that his deeds have been recorded in multiple historical accounts, and even questions their veracity, his real journey becomes one of gradually realising that he is a character in a book, and is in fact not real.
Did I mention that Don Quixote was the first novel ever written? Self-awareness is so primal to the language of storytelling that we’ve had four centuries to get used to it. We’re a generation of children raised on Winnie the Pooh – once a cartoon of a book with a narrator, since reduced to a cartoon based on a book – where Tigger would get down from that tree by [reluctantly] asking the narrator turn the book on its side so that he could slide down the words on the opposite page. Self-aware characters are part of our psyche; the Collective Unconscious. It’s the language of the common people. And Tropic Thunder speaks it fluently to great comedic effect. More to the point, Ben Stiller speaks it fluently. I was more surprised to see the story, scriptwriting, direction and production credits to his name than I was that the film actually made sense. Sorry, I lied, Ben Stiller’s heavy involvement made me even more surprised that the film made sense, and I should no longer be surprised that it did so regardless, given that I’ve just spent an entire paragraph explaining why it does make sense [all the while not making sense myself].
Proof that 'seriously funny' isn't an oxymoron.
So now you know why you should understand Tropic Thunder as a text, but why should you enjoy watching it? The answer is simple: because people loved and still love Don Quixote. Ben Stiller plays the Don Quixote of Tropic Thunder, Tugg Speedman, who in turn plays Sergeant Four Leaf. A great deal of the comedy derives from us understanding that the actors are in an actual warzone, while Tugg Speedman does not. Instead, Tugg clutches tightly to the script (like a blankie) and the map, marching wantonly through the mine-rigged jungles of Vietnam, despite the pleas of his supporting cast. Unlike Quixote, Speedman’s journey is not one of discovering that Four Leaf is not real (even though he isn’t), or even that he isn’t Stupid Jack (though it takes some convincing); it’s discovering that he’s not just in a movie; he’s in a real war with real enemies. Watching the disparity between what makes an effective combat move in battle and what makes a visually appealing combat move in a blockbuster action film is the funniest thing this side of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Jack Black has the dubious honour of channelling his idol, Ozzy Osbourne [you’ll see what I mean], but the Sancho Panza of Tropic Thunder is without a doubt Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus. An American Hollywood actor playing an Australian Hollywood actor who immerses himself in his roles so much that he undergoes an experimental skin pigment treatment to play a black American soldier, who is still somehow the first person to realise that they are in a real jungle full of real landmines and real terrorists with real weapons, all the while remaining in character! Downey Jr’s new agent deserves a huge pat on the back [or a fat cheque] if you ask me. If I may use another analogy from the greats of Western literature, it reminds me of “World’s End”, the eighth book of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. All the characters in the book find themselves huddled together in the same inn at the edge of all worlds, telling stories to pass the time until the storm blows over. Each character has a splendid and amazing story to tell, and nearly all the characters in their stories tell stories to each other, and so on and so forth. In his foreword to the book, Stephen King described these tales as stories within stories, or rather, nested Chinese boxes. Likewise, the characters of Tropic Thunder are like little babushkas we can be excited to open.
The 'minstrel show' returns with Kirk Lazarus, and it's not as controversial as you think...
Tropic Thunder is so many things. It’s a subversive discussion of Real and Unreal using low-brow humour and slapstick as the vehicle. It’s a Jurassic Park/Lost World story, where a seemingly brilliant idea goes awry when things get out of control. It’s a parody of the Hollywood action blockbuster. It’s a hilarious jab at Hollywood’s desperate attempts at authenticity. No one in Hollywood is spared, really – not Eddie Murphy, not Stallone, definitely not Sean Penn, not the late Heath Ledger, not anyone - even Tom Cruise has a few good larks at his own expense. But the number one thing Tropic Thunder is, is bloody hilarious.
P.S. Watch it with some friends and see how many trailers they get through before they realise the movie's started!