It drives me nuts when people I love and trust recommend shlock to me. “What do you mean Tropic Thunder is good?” I ask, “I’ve seen the trailers.” To me it looked like another stupid, Hollywood being self-conscious and ironic about its own excess. I was told this is not that case. I was told that the social commentary was incisive and accurate. “This ain’t Zoolander,” they told me, so I dove in. Now here is my question: Where is the commentary? Is it a commentary to be ironic about all the clichés used in the movie? Is that really all it takes? One can recycle every hackneyed device in popular cinema, provided one makes it clear that all recycling is done tongue-in-cheek. All the clichés are there to draw attention to themselves as clichés, and thus be undercut. Well, does drawing attention to itself actually undercut it? Does irony make the cliché less of a cliché?
Let me put it a different way. What did you learn from this movie? Social commentary teaches, correct? – It shows you something in society you had not noticed before? It diagnoses a new problem, sheds light on an old problem, and perhaps offers solutions? This is my understanding of how social commentary works, so again I ask of Tropic Thunder: Is there a fresh or unique point of view in there somewhere? Is there some information that is being revealed for the first time? Also, it is a comedy, yes? Are there some jokes in there that make you laugh in unexpected situations? Is it even funny? I would forgive the first couple offenses if it was funny. I find that Hollywood movies rarely have anything to say that is important, interesting or the least bit truthful, but sometimes they are clever; sometimes they can turn a phrase. Big Lebowski is about nothing. It expresses nothing the least bit important, but at least it has funny jokes. Bob Roberts, to give an example of ostensible social commentary, is far from the most eye-opening, earth-shattering revelation of truth I ever saw on film, but at least the jokes are funny.
The question seems to be: “Who is the audience for this social commentary?” As I understand social commentary, it should be for those who are either ignorant of the problem commented upon or those on the opposite side of the fence from the filmmaker or writer who addresses that problem. It is bad, ineffective, superfluous social commentary that addresses a like-minded audience to apt them on the back for “getting it,” and this is what Tropic Thunder does. One nods ones head with satisfaction and then silently thinks of (or unconsciously senses) that the movie is a nice intellectual multivitamin for the rest of the idiots in the world that Ben Stiller crushed up and stuck in a teaspoon of honey so they wouldn’t know they were taking in something healthy.
I would argue this movie does not teach the average moviegoer anything more than it teaches the savvy one. The person who goes to the movie to hear a litany of clichés and see a hundred of explosions gets another heap of clichés and explosions, while the person who listens to the reviews on NPR gets a pat on the back for being able to read the ironic tone and thus pick up all the subtext.
The movie is really the opposite of everything it appears to be! How long do we (I’m talking to the people who should know better, not the people who want to see shit blow up, but the self-professed “critical thinkers”) continue to buy this? How long are we going to continue to accept ironic self-consciousness and self-reference as deep thought? Ben Stiller is a guy who has parlayed the critique of his own celebrity into fairly massive celebrity status. Can we not at some point soon call a goddamn duck a duck and move on to someone who might have something to say that we don’t already know? Yes, Ben Stiller, we get it. We have seen you in Zoolander and Reality Bites (just substitute “celebrity” for what it means: “mainstream/successful”). We have seen you parody yourself in Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Is it not more than a little cloying, more than a little disingenuous?
Such is Tropic Thunder from beginning to end. It is Hollywood sending up itself. It is the White House correspondents dinner hosted by Frank Caliendo, Dana Carvey or Rich Little. Sure there is a little political content to the jokes, but ultimately they are benign and everybody goes home mildly amused and totally unscathed. In the Hollywood version everyone makes a million dollars, they pat themselves on the back for the doing the right thing and Tom Cruise’s name starts getting dropped for awards! Put a bald cap on a crappy actor and ask him to yell, and you have instant genius. But this is our culture. This is our country. Doing the right thing can be as simple as pointing out a problem as long as you layer your observation with cliché, present it as entertainment and make another million dollars off it.