Show Stoppers

Photo: Merie Weismiller/Courtesy of Dreamworks, Illustration by Wes Duvall

The Ben Stiller action-film parody Tropic Thunder is all over the map, but it’s worth enduring the botched gags, formula plotting, and even the racism to marvel at the genius of Robert Downey Jr.

The movie centers on the catastrophic making of a Southeast Asian war epic, and Downey plays one of its stars: Kirk Lazarus, an edgy Aussie modeled on Russell Crowe who gets so deep into his characters that he’s a thorough pain in ass. When we meet Kirk, he’s had his skin surgically darkened to embody a badass Negro circa 1971, the heyday of Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson. This is thin ice, but with Brandon T. Jackson playing a black actor who expresses constant incredulity at Kirk’s incessant references to his “people,” the stunt has some irony built in.

But there’s a bigger reason the portrait isn’t offensive: As much as Downey sends up the Shafts and Super Flys, he respects the beauty and weight and potency of the archetype. He drops his voice an octave (at least) and what comes out is gorgeous. He really does make a damn fine Negro.

Downey has always had a gift for getting into supernatural synch with his material. In his early comedies, he was breezy, but with a dash of morbidity. (The result of his Hollywood counterculture upbringing?) When it was time to play darker roles like the self-destructive druggie in Less Than Zero, all he had to do was shift the balance—lessen the breeziness, up the morbidity. Even at his most glibly charming, he seemed haunted by self-awareness: He had the best inner B.S. detector in movies. Downey is too serious about his craft to make Kirk Lazarus a second-rater. When he engages his co-star, Speedman (Stiller), about the latter’s failed foray into Oscar-bait territory as a mentally-disabled man. Kirk says Speedman’s mistake was not giving the character more stature: “You never go the full retard.” The scene—the movie’s best by far—isn’t just a brilliant jab at Hollywood’s penchant for noble fools. It’s great because Kirk is, from an acting perspective, right.

Bits like that give Tropic Thunder a wonderful postmodern satirical hook. Stiller and actor Justin Theroux devised the story and brought in Etan Coen to help polish the Method-acting gags (did he write the full retard?), and when the movie works it has a hallucinatory blend of parody and danger—with John Toll’s extraordinarily lush cinematography evoking real Vietnam War epics. When the film set collapses into prima donna bickering, Nick Nolte’s hilariously grizzled John “Four Leaf” Tayback (who wrote the Vietnam memoir on which the film-within-a-film is based), tells the director (Steve Coogan) to take these pansified thespians into the jungle and turn them into real soldiers. Unfortunately, they touch down near a real Thai drug-smuggling camp, and it takes a while for them to realize those bullets being fired at them are real. The fizz goes out of the movie, though, when a character steps on a mine and chunks of his body rain down—not so funny in a world where IED victims come home in body bags every week.

Jack Black makes little of a bum role as a Chris Farley–like junkie, but as Speedman’s agent, Matthew McConaughey has lots of gonzo pep but never finds a rhythm. The show-off cameo is by Tom Cruise in a bald cap as an obscenity-spouting Jewish mogul. He’s funny, but less because of anything he does than because it’s Tom Cruise playing gross. Watching Cruise rant and wave his arms, you can see the tension he carries in his shoulders. He never loosens up enough to inhabit a character—any character.

But Downey is loose as a goose: His flexibility—physical and emotional—is inspiring. His Kirk craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s a black actor playing a black soldier. And Downey craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s an Aussie actor playing a black actor playing a black soldier. This is a trivial movie, but the performance means so much.

There are two possible avenues for the artist in winter: rage against the withering of the flesh, or, like Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, stick with exploring youngish dilemmas from a wry-geezer’s vantage, via flesh that is emphatically non-withered (toned, hot, horny). Allen’s latest film features a narrator (Christopher Evan Welsh) who relays, in even tones, the tale of dishy twentysomething American friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), with opposite philosophies of life, and how their respective worldviews are tested over the course of a summer in Spain by a lusty painter (Javier Bardem) and his tempestuous, gun-toting ex-wife (Penélope Cruz). Allen doesn’t waste much time dramatizing those worldviews. The narrator simply announces that Vicky—in Spain to study “every aspect of Catalan culture”—believes in order and commitment and is poised to marry a yuppie and move to Greenwich, Connecticut, and that Cristina is spontaneous, unruly, and commitment-phobic. When Juan Antonio (Bardem) strides up to them in a restaurant and invites them to fly off with him in a private plane (“Life is shit, life is full of pain,” why not pleasure ourselves while we may?), Vicky gasps at his effrontery, while Cristina puffs out her pillowy lips and eats the swarthy suitor with her eyes. Then they’re all on that plane: Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, and, of course, the attentive narrator, always spelling out what’s in our heroines’ heads.

Given its particulars—Allen’s creepy-old-man gaze, the subtext-free dialogue, the Michelin-guide tour of Catalan art and architecture, the predictable dramatic arc—Vicky Cristina Barcelona ought to have been an eye-roller. What a surprise that it’s so seductive. The Woodman lives! Allen finds the perfect tone: objective, with a hint of affectionate sympathy. He is obviously living through these femmes, getting off on their ripe flesh and heated couplings. But he’s also standing back, posing the right questions for a terminally unhappy 72-year-old who has, for all his productivity, never transcended his formidable hang-ups. Will Vicky and/or Cristina, upended by experience, radically transform? Or will they find reasons (internal and external) to return to the same paths? If you know Allen’s work, you’ll have no doubt as to their fates: The suspense is nonexistent. But this is not a jaded parable. You can feel Allen’s pain over the roads not taken.

The movie is funny, too—funny without strain, without the wheeze of Allen’s last few comedies. The milieu is fresh, the actors fresher. Rebecca Hall is a tall, striking Brit (the daughter of Sir Peter Hall) with stage training, and her American accent is studied: She’s channeling Mia Farrow, who was, of course, channeling Allen. But her readings are bright, and the echoes actually give the film more resonance. The role of Cristina is more of a construct, a fantasy, but you can’t argue with Johansson’s goddessy wattage. Cristina doesn’t need to form enduring attachments; she’s so luscious that no matter where she goes, men (and women) will come to her.

As the watered-down Crimes and Misdemeanors remake Match Point proved, foreign accents do wonders for Allen’s dialogue, and Bardem brings a charge to Don Juan lines as cornball as “The night is warm and balmy, isn’t that enough?” It’s certainly enough out of his mouth. Bardem knows you don’t play a part this shallow halfway. Juan Antonio means every word, but he’s also an actor who loves his role and savors the hunt—and is, with these two babes, in clover.

And that’s before Cruz’s Maria Elena bursts in, her staccato Spanish cascade a magnificent foil for Johansson’s lazy rhythms. There has never been a character like Cruz’s Maria Elena in an Allen movie—or at least one who self-dramatizes at this velocity. Cruz is so sensationally funny that I wish Allen would do his next film with her, in Spanish.

As lively and entertaining as Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, I wonder what Allen could do with characters who aren’t so distant from him—who acknowledge both their sexual hunger and their advancing age. When enough people objected to his casting himself romantically opposite women 30 years his junior, Allen didn’t write a film in which that age difference was acknowledged and explored—he simply made his lovers younger and cast himself as ineffectual (and sexless) old cranks. Maybe it’s time to do his own version of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal (a.k.a., the film Elegy) or the new, heavy-handed Chabrol movie, A Girl Cut in Two, in which the aged artist is an SOB who pounces on a nubile sacrifice. Allen obsessed a lot more about aging and death in his thirties. He should overcome his temperamental squeamishness and write the brutal (preferably funny, too!) psychodrama I know—after the invigorating Vicky Cristina Barcelona—he must still have in him.

Tropic Thunder has had a full blockbuster rollout, with an American Idol appearance by the stars, a tie-in energy drink called Booty Sweat, and a USO screening for troops at Camp Pendleton. But not all of the advance press has gone as planned by DreamWorks. Disability-rights groups persuaded the studio to pull the fake movie Website, which used the word retard to describe a Forrest Gump–like role played by Stiller’s character. Putting blackface on Downey Jr. has raised some hackles, but black co-star Brandon T. Jackson told People he wasn’t offended: “To be honest, he played a black dude better than anybody I’ve seen!”

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller.
Dreamworks. R.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Directed by Woody Allen.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. PG-13.


Show Stoppers