In The Clothes Have No Emperor, Paul Slansky’s invaluable compendium of the political and cultural foibles of the 1980s, Tom Cruise is cited giving the following quote while promoting his film Top Gun: “A Top Gun instructor once told me there are only four occupations worthy of a man: actor, rock star, jet fighter pilot, or President of the United States.” The quote really is a gift that keeps on giving.
First, one envisions the reaction of cops and firemen the world over, having finally been exposed for the cringing femme pussies they really are. Then one marvels at just how accommodating a guy that Top Gun instructor was. “Actor”! Jeez, somebody shoulda passed this quote on to Mickey Rourke before he went and got mixed up in that boxing mishegas—coulda saved him some trouble. “Rock star”! Wow, I bet David Bowie musta been chuffed to hear that. Although it's more likely that the Top Gun instructor had Ted Nugent in mind. The phrase “rock star” cuts a pretty wide swath; maybe the instructor should have been more specific. But there you have it.
Cruise’s noxious pronouncement came to mind while I was watching the new comedy Tropic Thunder for two reasons. First, because it’s exactly the kind of fatuous twaddle one might expect to be spewed by any of its main characters, all of whom are Hollywood actors. This bunch—three major stars, each representing a particular strain of Hollywood product, and two relative newcomers—are trying to get as “real” as they can while shooting a Vietnam-era war epic, and via various twists of fate and hubris wind up waging a form of actual warfare against a very real and very armed Asian drug cartel. (The leader of the cartel is a cigar-chomping twelve year old played by Brandon Soo Hoo; the character is obviously inspired by the real-life boy soldiers of Myanmar. I was reminded of Robert Christgau’s critique of Manifest Destiny, an album by punk-metal band The Dictators: “anyone smart enough to fool around with such terminology ought to be decent enough not to.”) Director/co-writer Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, an action star whose most recent stab at thespic and Oscar-baiting credibility, going “full retard” in a picture called Simple Jack, was a disastrous backfire. Jack Black is Jeff Portnoy, who made his fortune playing multiple characters in fart-joke pictures, and is looking for some legitimacy. And Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus, five-time-Oscar-winning Australian performing genius, a man who gets so deeply into his roles that for this one he’s gotten a pigmentation change and playing his part as an African-American. Which deeply pisses of rapper-turned-acting hopeful Alp Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), an actual African-American. The fifth of the stranded-in-the-jungle cast members, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), is apparently the sole member of the troupe who has some common sense, at least when he’s not delivering ridiculous diatribes on why Blu-ray won the HD-disc format war.
These characters are all, in some sense, frauds, and they're not the only ones—the first-time director (Steve Coogan) and the Vietnam-vet tough-guy author (Nick Nolte) whose story the movie-within-a-movie is adapting both get their reveals, too. The second reason the quote came to mind is—of course—that Mr. Tom Cruise himself is in the movie, practically unrecognizable under grotesque makeup for his role as Lev Grossman, a vile studio executive who likes to abuse his minions in terms that recall “my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out"-era Mike Ovitz (only with more profanity), and who also enjoys dancing—ridiculously, of course—at random moments to one of the more overtly macho tunes in Ludacris’ catalog.
For all Grossman's awfulness, it's manifestly clear that he's the real deal, which tells you all you need to know about the film's philosophy. Many have described Cruise’s turn as a form of revenge against Viacom head Sumner Redstone, who publicly criticized Cruise’s “bizarre” behavior in 2006. But Grossman is hardly an analog for Redstone, whose vulgarity is far more, shall we say, homespun than the Tropic Thunder’s character, for one thing. Nonetheless, there is an aspect of Cruise’s performance here that says, “I’m going to show you a far bigger freak than the guy who jumped on Oprah’s couch.” All the brouhaha over Downey’s putative blackface schtick (not to mention the “concern” evinced by certain representatives of the disabled, who, truth to tell, are missing a certain point but will nonetheless be vilified by Thunder's admirers for the far less nuanced reason that they’re just not hip enough to get the movie’s awesomeness—indeed, pretty much as I write this one Hollywood observer is sniffily referring to an anti-Thunder editorial by an activist for the disabled as “not-very-hip”) has helped cover the fact that Cruise’s Grossman, with his simian posture, scraggly beard, unsightly tufts of chest hair, pouchlike paunch, and overall vileness, is a fairly vicious anti-semitic caricature. But doubtlessly one worthy of a man.
This is not to say that much of Tropic Thunder isn’t funny—these guys are, after all, professionals—nor that a few of its points aren’t well taken. For all that, the film is so broad and sometimes more than borderline hateful that one wonders just what it’s trying to, um, say. Is it that the idea of artistic integrity as engendered by the Hollywood system is nothing more than a grim joke…or just that the idea of artistic integrity, period, is nothing more than a grim joke? And who precisely is the joke on, anyway? Here we get into an area wherein the teller, or tellers, could in fact be as, if not more, important than the tale.
For instance: Oh, look, here’s Maria Menounos, Access Hollywood automaton, playing herself, delivering a fake movie news item. We’re supposed to look at her and say, “What a good sport! She ‘gets’ it!” Only —and this question always nags me when media figures cameo thusly in movies—if she "gets" it, why does she go on perpetrating it in real life? Just how transparent does a shell game have to be before we stop playing?
Maybe it’s just me. Or me and Todd McCarthy, whose Variety pan prompted the ire of those who insist that McCarthy just doesn't, you know, "get" it. After all, writing at Premiere.com, Eric Kohn avers, “everything in Tropic Thunder qualifies as satire, not spoof. It's an important distinction. Pauline Kael once noted that ‘unlike satire, spoofing has no serious objectives; it doesn't attack anything that anyone could take seriously; it has no cleansing power.’, " and goes on to compare the film to Dr. Strangelove. (I do love that "it's an important distinction." Gee, thanks, dude.) Rather less long-windedly than Kael (don't kill me all at once in comments, kids!), Vladimir Nabokov stated, “Satire is a lesson. Parody is a game.” Given the incoherence of its satirical aspirations (the film does end with a suggestion that everyone involved still loves this business we call show), and finally too scattershot to really make it as parody, Tropic Thunder is best appreciated as a goof. Provided you can stomach it.