Movies are already an illusion — stories committed to film that feel real but, at best, are only an impression of reality.
With this Smackdown! we have a couple of competitors about real people playing characters in unreal film and TV projects who end up being taken as authentic by people who can, basically, kill them, and so they have to suck it up and act like the heroes they pretend to be. In both “Tropic Thunder” and “Galaxy Quest” (both from DreamWorks), things are not what they seem. Could Ben Stiller actually fight his way out of a paper bag any more than Tim Allen could save the universe from world-destroying aliens? Roll film…
You’re shopping for something to watch, perhaps a comedy to flavor the mix of summer movies. You need something to cleanse the memory of “The Love Guru” and Eddie Murphy’s latest misfire. Going back for another dose of “Hancock” won’t do, and neither will another road trip with Harold and Kumar. Maybe try out a comedy that spoofs better than “Get Smart” and comes with a load of pre-release buzz: “Tropic Thunder.” It’s the latest from writer / actor / director Ben Stiller and will not escape some controversy for having Robert Downey, Jr. appear in black face.
“Tropic Thunder” is a comeback project for Tugg Speedman (Stiller) after tanking an earlier movie as a mentally impaired adult. Tugg is a prima donna who grouses that his jungle accommodations lack Tivo. His costars are a handful: Drug addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey), who discards his Aussie accent for an Afro and skin tint. Production on this Vietnam War movie has ground to a halt to the annoyance of the director, writer (Nick Nolte) and studio exec Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, still recognizable in a fat suit and bald wig). The production moves to Southeast Asia and the “movie within a movie” becomes a survival test after the director steps on a landmine. Now, the bad guys are shooting REAL ammunition, conducting real torture and kidnap Tugg after mistaking his group for drug enforcement agents. The action centers on springing Tugg and echoes most of the war movies this past decade.
“Tropic Thunder” may be a comedy more people talk about than see, having trouble finding an audience, much like an underrated comedy from 1999, “Galaxy Quest.”
The Defending Champion
Think “Star Trek” and you get the basic idea that animates “Galaxy Quest.” The show has been off the air for 18 years, but adoring fans keep the faith. Fortune has smirked at Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and fellow actors from the Protector. They’re on the nostalgia circuit, appearing in costume to press the flesh and sign autographs.
Before long, Nesmith is approached by a group of aliens — Thermians — who’ve mistaken all those TV shows for “historical documents” of Commander Peter Quincy Taggart and crew saving the universe. They convince Nesmith to confront an intergalactic bad guy who looks like a talking lobster. Of course, the Commander can’t succeed alone, so he enlists his unemployed “crew”: Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) and Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub).
If this were the Starship Enterprise, they would be Mr. Spock, Uhura and Sulu with the same personality quirks. Does Commander Taggart save the Thermians? Is there a lot of teleportation and inter-species hanky-panky? Do I really need to ask?
Both films are clever although one is more interested in being funny. “Tropic Thunder” signals its tongue-in-cheek intentions with a handful of phony movie trailers. “Grindhouse” did this a few years ago. It does not take much imagination to see how much Ben Stiller draws from movies like “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter,” even “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” These elements are repurposed in ways that are smart and fun.
Several characters are gems: Matthew McConaughey as Tugg Speedman’s agent; Tom Cruise is perfectly venal as studio boss Les Grossman. Nick Nolte and Jack Black are appropriately self-absorbed and off-putting. It becomes a game spotting the cameo appearances by the likes of Jon Voight, Tobey Maguire and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Robert Downey, Jr. deserves special notice. He’s very credible as a blue eyed Australian transformed into the character of a black GI. It’s a real achievement. Downey looks the part, sounds the part and other characters comment on the transformation. I wonder if it was worth the effort. More than once “Tropic Thunder” takes pains to let us know how some actors go to extremes in tackling a part. “Don’t go full retard,” Downey’s character advises Tugg. That’s just not a very funny theme, and all the screen time spent talking about method acting slows the movie to a crawl. That’s a serious flaw in a comedy, especially since “Tropic Thunder” might have defused any side issues by using a black actor in that role, or Downey without the makeover.
“Galaxy Quest” doesn’t try as hard. The script by David Howard and Robert Gordon is content with barely disguising a story that would feel at home on “Star Trek.” It looks like this movie borrowed the sets from the TV show, even the monsters. It mines the comedic possibilities of silliness with a group of first rate actors who relish the material. Alan Rickman and Tony Shaloub would have been great on “Star Trek”; I wish Sigourney Weaver had been this funny in “Ghostbusters.”
Do we have a winner? You bet.
Both movies are well crafted, well cast. In terms of ambition, “Galaxy Quest” cannot lay a glove on “Tropic Thunder.” Its references are wide ranging, but “Thunder” tries too hard to be clever and not hard enough to be funny. It’s also risky reaching for laughs from spurting blood, exposed viscera and the mentally impaired. Add in the discussion about Robert Downey in black face and audiences may wonder: What’s so funny?
“Galaxy Quest” has smaller ambitions and succeeds. It gently reworks familiar characters in a story that is simply constructed and amusing. It does not try to be more than it is. Charming and funny are enough for our winner, “Galaxy Quest.”