A potentially better Tropic Thunder post

I had a few thoughts about the movie, but I realize I didn’t really phrase them particularly well originally.

There are many problems with this movie – the one I was trying to get at in my previous post was that I don’t believe that this will actually register as a satire with much of the audience – it seems to me from the opinions I’ve seen that there is more amusement about Robert Downey Jr. in blackface than an understanding of it being an over-the-top exaggeration of method acting (official reviews, of course, would refute my assertion), which I would assume, best-case, was the intent.

Another problem is the casting – Jack Black and Ben Stiller have made many infamous acting choices involving tasteless, crass, or (in this guy’s opinion) just plain stupid movies: There’s Something About Mary, or Dodgeball, or Shallow Hal, or Meet the Parents, etc. etc. etc. I’m aware that Stiller had the idea for this movie while he was working on Empire of the Sun, but in the larger context of movie roles, painting this as nothing but brilliant satire tends to look disingenuous at best.

And, as jessi points out, by creating a lowball satire such as this, Stiller in effect paints a picture of bigotry as how it appears in Tropic Thunder, and in so doing gets to distance himself, as do Downey Jr. and Black – see, we’re not actually assholes, these people who do these things – they are the assholes.

In edition to these things, the fact is that satires about Hollywood being a town of vain and ignorant people…are not new. The only thing new here is the tools used to do it – Ben Stiller mocking Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn while getting his fanbase to laugh at the disabled onscreen; Jack Black engaging in self-mockery too realistic to be satirical (it only works if you find him starring in a movie called “The Fatties” wholly implausible); and Robert Downey Jr. in blackface.

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14 Responses

  1. So you’re saying that 1) the movie is offensive because it draws its humor from the blackface itself, rather than from satire, and so appeals to racists when it should mock them; and 2) the movie is offensive because it establishes satirical distance, which simplistically mocks racists. In other words, the movie fails whether it pulls off the satire or not, so it seems to me that you’re starting with the premise that the use of blackface or the word “retard” must always be unacceptable, and then constructing your reasoning for that premise after the fact.

    I don’t think that the actors’ filmography is relevant to the discussion. I thought The Truman Show and Man on the Moon were very good, and Eddie Murphy was excellent in Dreamgirls, even though both Carrey and Murphy had made some awful movies a very short time before those good ones.

  2. It’s relevant when the humor derives itself from the same sorts of jokes that have long been Stiller and Black’s stocks-in-trade.

    So lemme ask you a question: are you personally offended by anything I’ve said here?

  3. Both Ben Stiller and Jack Black have done some extremely smart comedy, in addition to the films you’ve mentioned (some of which don’t strike me as so dumb, but never mind). You also seem to be saying that we can tell that Tropic Thunder‘s humor is offensive and juvenile from the films the actors have done in the past, which are offensive and juvenile just like Tropic Thunder. That seems like circular logic.

    So lemme ask you a question: are you personally offended by anything I’ve said here?

    …no? I’m confused by the question.

  4. The bottom line is that:

    a) I have no problem with the premise of the movie, even though the satire of Hollywood as self-involved and ignorantly offensive is as old as Hollywood itself;

    b) Ben Stiller and Jack Black are not the people to make this movie, because their names are attached to …more dubious comedies (I take your Carrey point, but I don’t think it fits because Man on the Moon and The Truman Show don’t really rely on the same style of jokes as Ace Ventura and The Mask) which would attract a fanbase that likely won’t get the satire involved and just go “Dude, Downey dressed as a black guy and said the funniest things!”

    c) What seems like circular logic, I think, is that I haven’t really seen it yet, so I’m relying mostly on other information on the content of the movie.

    As for why I might have assumed you’re taking offense, you seem to be arguing with me pretty fiercely, which surprises me.

  5. I’m sorry about the apparent fierceness; I definitely didn’t mean to come across as angry (I don’t feel angry), so that’s my bad. If my discussion of your evidence seems confrontational or pedantic, it may be because I object to these aspects of the movie as being automatically considered offensive, which I’ve seen elsewhere. But again, I didn’t mean to engage you in an aggressive way.

  6. Well – pedantry itself doesn’t bother me. I’ve been known to argue semantics with my unfortunate fiancee from time to time. She doesn’t always go for that, of course, but that’s a different story. No offense was taken!

    At any rate, I don’t necessarily know that they’re [i]automatically[/i] offensive, no; I’m just not sure I see Ben Stiller being a guy who will handle them well, I suppose. I’ve liked some of his movies here and there, sure; I thought Zoolander was great, for example.

    Then again, I wouldn’t take my opinion to be authoritative, by any stretch – I’m not an expert on these matters.

  7. to shrink down even further what i said in the other post, if the only way you can do funny in 2008 is to make jokes about blackface, yr doin it wrong. i dont care if this is some major smart meta funny that i am just too damn stupid to grasp, all that means is that a whole bunch of the people going to see the film arent going to grasp such sophisticated nuance either.

    and being completely ok with being captain killjoy, i will say yes, you can never ever make jokes about blackface or the differently abled. maybe if you are black, or differently abled it might be ok, sorta like how i can call myself a fat loudmouth bitch and its ok, but if you call me the same thing, youre in a heap of trouble.

  8. I saw the movie.

    I thought they pulled off the metacritiques fairly well. I particularly thought they handled the blackface critique well; I am still not sure how I feel about the ableism stuff. Though, Tomemos has some interesting close analysis that I hadn’t considered before concerning that issue.

    I even like how the film had a gay black character. That’s not something you see everyday in media.

    I am surprised nobody here has commented on Tom Cruise’s borderline anti-Semitic Jewish Hollywood executive who cares more about profit than human life.

  9. i cant speak for brown shoes, but i havent actually watched the film. yes, im that asshole who judges films without seeing them. but re: the tom cruise thing, i assume its further meta humor i just wont get, afterall stiller is jewish.

    i’m curious about the gay black character, how was he portrayed? was he some exagerated flaming stereotype, or was he just a black guy who happened to be gay? becos ive seen the black queen thing done alot and its to the point of being so over the top as to be cliche and semi grotesque. a black guy who just happened to be gay, i would have to give props for that, cos thats pretty subversive.

  10. Eric – funny you should mention the Tom Cruise thing, because you’re right; that completely slipped my mind. I’ve only actually seen a single movie review that mentioned Cruise’s character and how “every Hollywood exec stereotype in the movies ends up looking and sounding like Harvey Weinstein”. Seems like they went for the cheap joke there!

  11. Hmm, well when I thought about it further some other issues came up that is worth mentioning.

    The film opens with trailers of each characters’s previous movies or media work. The film Robert Downey Jr.’s character is in is about gay priests who engage in “forbidden” love in a Catholic monestary.

    On the one hand the audience seemed to react to the display of “gayness,” with “Oh, look two gay men are getting it on on the screen through bits of symbolic sub-text” and since that is “abnormal” from everyday standards it thus must be funny. I can see strictly from this perspective how it might be offensive.

    However, then the film goes on to hint Downey’s character won the academy award for it, thus it becomes a metacritique about what kind of films win the academy award and why necessarily should a film like that win, or to put it another way it becomes a metacritique of the fact that films depicting gay love as forbidden are the types of films that tend to win the academy award because it feels subversive, but it’s a faux subversiveness by ultimately playing into the fact that gay love should be abnormal and strange and given a kind of special status as different (which of course it shouldn’t).

    They also tell us the other actor played by Tobey McGuire wins the MTV award for Best Kiss, which is actually kind of funny and random after hearing about Downey’s Oscar from the film, thus adding to movie spoofs by critique pop culture (apparently MTV awards for Best Kiss or almost of equal importance to an Oscar in our culture) and trying for further subversiveness because it was a kiss between two men that won the award. I thought that was a nice touch.

    Going back to your original comments Jessilikewhoa, since I went off on a different but related tangent, if anything they initially portray the guy as a super sexist gangster rapper, except they subvert that image too.

    He was more like a black guy in the closet who its hinted is afraid to admit he is gay because of his gangster image and also he may have developed some of his sexist atttidues to hide the fact that he is gay. But they didn’t play up any of the flaming stereotype at all. And in the end he ends up with his true love, Lance Bass from N’Sync fame.

  12. >>in the end he ends up with his true love, Lance Bass from N’Sync fame<<

    This is the first thing I’ve heard about the movie that actually sounds funny.

  13. Eric, I love your analyis of the fake gay trailer but just want to point out that the reference to Tobey Maguire winning Best Kiss was probably for “Spider-Man.” And that perhaps the forbidden love was less about their homosexuality as it was the setting. A film with the same intent between, say, a nun and priest, might be handled in the same way. But I thought you sounded very astute otherwise.

  14. Thanks for the correction, Galen.

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