It's quite possible that the new surefire way of nabbing an Oscar nomination will be to put on clown make-up, flick your tongue around, and sneer in a breathy, nasally voice. With comic book movies having now entered into the arena of serious critical conversation because of the high praise given Iron Man and The Dark Knight, actors craving Academy acknowledgment may begin lobbying hard for that annual role of hysterical blockbuster villain. Heath Ledger's The Joker was fine, but the instant nominee status he was anointed with - assisted by his unfortunate death, no doubt - is another sign that our standards have lowered. (Josh Peck's barely noticed performance in The Wackness is ten times deeper and studied than Ledger's yet nobody will whisper about it come January).
So it's absolutely perfect that Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder got its emphatic release near the end of the 2008 summer season. The characters of Robert Downey Jr.'s Kirk Lazarus - who undergoes skin pigmentation surgery in order to nab a sixth Oscar -, and Ben Stiller's Tugg Speedman - who went "full retard" in a previous film in an attempt to nab his first - spoofs the Hollywood acting tenet that physical transformation and body contortion denote quality acting (Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan anyone???). Further, it's almost a backwards blessing that the hype leading up to Tropic Thunder focused on the silly controversies surrounding these two characters, because audiences will now enter theaters unaware of the blindside coming from the summer's smartest film.
Modern Hollywood misspends a lot of its time trying to spoon feed the public with its chalkboard philosophy on a variety of social, political, and global issues as if we don't live in the world ourselves. In fact, the film goer's experiences as middle-class citizens give us a more insightful view of the world than some segregated sweetie livin' large in the Hollywood Hills. Think of Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront, Vincent Minnelli's Some Came Running, or Martin Ritt's Norma Rae; these were "issue films" that empathized with the audience, understood them. Now compare the minds behind those films with the dudes behind the soapbox propaganda of the "Oscar-worthy" Michael Clayton and it's off-the-charts embarrassing where we currently stand.
Tropic Thunder's screenwriters Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen, and Ben Stiller understand the disconnect that is growing between Hollywood and the public and have decided to clean house by turning a high-powered hose on the industry and community they know all too well. From Matthew McConaughey's multi-tasking PDA obsessed agent that gets in rounds of Wii tennis during negotiations, to Jay Baruchel's all-too-close-to home character that's just excited to be in a Tugg Speedman box office smash so he can finally get laid ("isn't that that Reed Fish guy?"), Tropic Thunder's jokes and jabs come so furiously as if Theroux, Cohen, and Stiller have been patiently waiting for this opportunity to unload.
But Tropic Thunder's greatest achievements lie in Tom Cruise's movie mogul Les Grossman and Brandon Jackson's hip-hop superstar turned movie actor, Alpa Chino.
Perhaps channeling anger stowed away after his clash with Sumner Redstone and Paramount, Cruise pushes the hairy-chested Hollywood Jew stereotype to its most extreme limits. But it isn't the ethnic angle that works here, it's Cruise's portrayal of Grossman as a tyrannical mad man that slams Diet Cokes and yells first then asks questions later. (After cussing out someone on the other end of the phone, Grossman hangs up and tells his assistant, "Find out who that was.") Stiller shoots Grossman carrying out contract talks at his desk like he's hovering over a map in a D.O.D. war room, and in one of Tropical Thunder's strongest moments, he gets Cruise to freestyle dance along to Ludacris' braggadocio statement "Get Back". With his big cock walk and gold chain that flaunts a five pound "$" emblem, this absurd moment sums up the movie business in one swoop.
Brandon Jackson's Alpa Chino character might be the film's most revelatory. Though Stiller and company only skim over it, hip-hop culture's under-the-rug brushing of artist's homosexuality is an issue nobody's been brave enough to address yet. In Tropic Thunder, Alpa Chino overcompensates for his true desires by pimping energy drinks and snack bars called Booty Sweat and Bust-A-Nut, but when the group of actors talk love lives by the campfire, Alpa comes clean about feelings for his friend Lance. Quickly he dismisses it, but by films end Alpa gets his man, and hopefully, we've gotten a preview of a beginning to the end of the understood "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the mainstream hip-hop community.
Perhaps the best film about the film industry since The Player, Tropic Thunder may go down alongside it, Sunset Blvd., and The Bad and The Beautiful as classics that coordinate damning and painfully accurate inside jobs. If by Oscar nomination time Tropic Thunder gets recognized in one way or another, then maybe we'll know that the film industry was finally listening. But probably we'll just hear about Heath Ledger some more... and Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett (again).