Once upon a time, movie comedies weren’t afraid of being crude, prickly and downright savage to get a laugh. If humor is sometimes directly tied to the misery of daily life, our best clowns get battered but somehow find a way of walking through their struggles while maintaining a sense of hope and optimism. That was true of Charlie Chaplin, Bill Murray circa Stripes, where he wise-assed his way through basic training in the army in search of sex and glory, and the heroes of the Farrelly brothers’ last great movie Kingpin, where the heroes crawled through all sorts of scatological tomfoolery in a quest to redeem themselves, and when anyone asks me what the best film of this decade is so far, I can never decide between the serious Inland Empire or the hilariously arcane, courageously disgusting, surrealistically absurd Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters, where nothing was off limits.
Simply put: Ben Stiller used to be unafraid of pointed mockery, but nowadays he pulls his punches. His new movie, Tropic Thunder, just isn’t funny. It’s as if he and co-screenwriter Justin Theroux spent so much of their development period cooking up the plot, in which a group of vainglorious actors shooting a big-budget war picture get dropped into an actual combat situation in Southeast Asia, that they forgot the jokes. Much attention is paid to setup, where we see glimpses of the other movies these guys are working on and a sense of their desperation for success: Jack Black plays a comic actor striving to crossover into straight drama; Brandon T. Jackson is the rapper-turned-actor; and Robert Downey Jr. is basically playing a grotesque extension of the “Daniel Day-Lewis School of Acting” as a five-time Oscar winner who undergoes skin pigmentation surgery in order to play a black guy.
I appreciate the thought Stiller and Theroux put into this, but the film suffers from the same problems that plague SNL, Mad magazine and a lot of other so-called totems of sketch comedy. We recognize the spoof of actors being vain and self-absorbed, and observe the point being stretched to the point of ridicule, such as when real bullets fly at the actors and they decide to “use” it. But this is where the machine breaks down, because instead of generating jokes the screenwriters only generate stories. “Wouldn’t it be funny if Black’s character were a heroin addict, and when he’s out in the jungle he has to go cold turkey?” This is not a joke. This is a narrative device. All it does is encourage Black to shriek, twitch, yell, sob and blubber, and if our idea of humor is watching an actor playing an actor who is trying really hard to get attention, then I suppose you may consider that the joke.
This elaborate construct was not made to get laughs from the audience, but to create a logical frame story, which seems like the wrong way to go. If the plots of Harold Lloyd movies seem absolutely ridiculous on paper, they are—excuses to get him from one joke to another. Stiller has forgotten the basic tenets and craft of screen comedy, and it makes me wonder why he wanted to make Tropic Thunder in the first place. Perhaps he was on the set of Empire of the Sun back in 1987 when his actor pals were acting in Hamburger Hill and Platoon, and the fact that so many people he knew were in war pictures got him thinking about actors going through boot camp, struggling manfully to act like soldiers, and to weep on cue when the bombs go off around them and the bullets are flying. Thus, the seeds of Tropic Thunder were planted.
In other words, Stiller was thinking about himself and his friends when he wrote it, but he left out the crucial third party that defines comedy: the audience. So while he takes potshots at actors and makes fun of situations we read about in People magazine and Entertainment Weekly, he’s basically taking the unsurprising jokes we come up with ourselves by the water cooler and reimagines them. I suppose there’s something warm and welcoming about the fact that Stiller is aware of the jokes we make ourselves, the kind that elicit laughs not because they’re funny but because they oblige us to. The jokes stem from a desire to belong, to conform to an idea of social acceptance. But do we go to comedy for a security blanket, or do we want some hypocrisy to be exposed before our eyes, or our preconceptions melted in disgust as we acknowledge that if we look in the mirror or out the window long enough we’re going to see something funny in the human animal?