Human pretension is generally good for a laugh. Two new comedies to do with the Creative Process, unequal in size, equally uneven in quality, equally unsteady in mood, deliver the laugh over and around constant obstacles. Tropic Thunder is the bigger one, a major-studio satire on a major-studio Vietnam War epic. The slipshod plotting, the willful misinformation about how movies are made, and the pandering to the groundlings do not close off all avenues of inspiration. Four fake trailers at the top of the movie, introducing the motley cast of the movie-within-the-movie, give a hint of the allowable latitude. The ones of the over-the-hill action star (Ben Stiller, the movie’s director and co-writer besides), the gross-out comedian (Jack Black), and the hip-hop gangsta (Brandon T. Jackson) are but a tepid warm-up to the topper, the one of the multiple-Oscar-winning thespian from Down Under (Robert Downey, Jr.), a monastery love story called Satan’s Alley, a tony period piece aimed at the art circuit. The narrator’s clipped phrases, pregnant pauses, and portentous tones are dead-on. Patrons of Landmark Theatres have heard all these a thousand times.
Downey dominates the action in the Vietnam jungle as well, his character having undergone a “controversial pigmentation alteration” to play an African-American foot soldier, emphatically putting the grunt in the grunt. Unthinkable though it would be for a white actor nowadays to perform in blackface, this is a diplomatically modest exaggeration of the depths to which a Serious Actor will go to “get into” a role, and not get out of it again until the DVD commentary is complete. (One thinks of another Australian actor, in multicolorface, who never surfaced from such depths: Heath Ledger.) Downey might be in slightly uncomfortable proximity to the drug-crazed character of Jack Black, an ugly and unfunny portrait on any account (was there ever a temptation to offer this part to Downey?), but it takes only a little effort to recall that the actor’s father was once the director of Putney Swope, a far more comfortable point of comparison: boundary-pushing race comedy. Downey, too, although often unintelligible (wallowing in the guttural), gets to recite an incisive critique of the action star’s misguided grasp for Oscar as a hayseed halfwit in Simple Jack. (We see a fake trailer of that one also, allowing a coasting Stiller to stretch himself to the danger point. Protests of advocacy groups notwithstanding, the only affront is to Oscar Graspers, and perfectly justified.) “Never go full retard,” is the belated advice from the master, holding up the prudent Rain Man, Being There, and Forrest Gump — perhaps Charly was too long ago to remember — against the foolhardy I Am Sam. Naming names.
Downey’s only competition for acting honors comes from outside the jungle (though Nick Nolte has his moments as a wizened Vietnam-vet advisor, the company’s guide to the Heart of Darkness), back home in Hollywood, where a heavily disguised Tom Cruise models a bald dome, bushy chest and arms, a bumpy nose, and a padded middle as a Harvey Weinsteinian bullying studio boss. (Funny notion: his everyday tough talk goes beyond anything ever heard by a cutthroat Asian heroin dealer and hostage taker.) As long as Cruise has become something of a joke anyway, this seems a sensible role to play, right through to the exhibitionist hip-hop dance in the closing credits. And the raging megalomania serves as a full-coverage mask for the actor’s chronic overacting. Similarly, the gut-spilling, blood-squirting gore in the movie (at least the gore in the movie-within-the-movie) is made more palatable by the satire. Through it, you can have a retrospective laugh at the pretensions and pieties of Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rambo, Saving Private Ryan, what-you-will.
Hamlet 2 is the smaller one, a low-budget indie directed by Andrew Fleming, about a lame-duck Drama teacher at West Mesa High in Tucson, forced to share classroom space first with the cafeteria workers and then with the girl volleyballers. Taking the place of the preludial trailers of Tropic Thunder are some fake TV ads from the portfolio of the teacher’s dried-up acting career (a Jack LaLanne juicer, a herpes med, etc.), and taking the place of the “retard” critique, while offering continuing commentary on the teacher’s persistent pretensions, are the allusions to Inspirational Teacher movies, Dead Poets’ Society, Dangerous Minds, et al.
The beady-eyed, seaweed-haired Steve Coogan, who happens also to play the over-his-head director in Tropic Thunder, soon the off-with-his-head director, is often funny as the affected artiste in a cruel and mocking world, and even when he’s not making you laugh he’s persuading you of his talent. Best evidence: his dark night of the soul in front of his word processor, staring at the blank screen with inextricable shock and terror (“Writing is so hard!”), snarling at the placid housecat (“What is your fucking problem?”), responding to a sudden burst of inspiration, or anyhow a sudden burst of actual typing, with a blurred back-and-forth between tears and laughter, a sort of Bipolar Express.
His latest and last project, a musical time-travel sequel to Hamlet, never sounds remotely plausible (the eventual sight of it doesn’t improve matters), and the fractious Latinos in class, in addition to further reducing the plausibility of the project, take precious time away from the teacher’s devoted disciples, a repressed homosexual and a goody-two-shoes ingenue, winsomely embodied by Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole. Elisabeth Shue — remember her? — is well cast as Elisabeth Shue, more precisely as an alternative Elisabeth Shue who might have quit Hollywood in disgust and taken up a new career as a nurse at a fertility clinic in Arizona.
Frozen River, a stoical prole sob story, has some fresh ground to go over — the smuggling of illegal aliens through the slushy snow of the Mohawk Indian reservation on the Canadian border — and some stark scenery to go with it. Writer and director Courtney Hunt, whose plotting and pacing are sloggingly pedestrian, expends a lot of energy explaining how a law-abiding white woman could get caught up in that sideline: a gambling-addicted husband who skips out on Christmas week, a fifteen-year-old son eager to drop out of school and go to work, nothing to put under the tree for the five-year-old, a dead-end job at Yankee Dollar, bills due. Melissa Leo, aging in a characterful way, able to assume the lead role without a Charlize Theron reverse makeover, does a solid professional job, so much so as to highlight the amateurism around her.