There is a lot to be said for Satan’s Alley, the new ever-so-slightly over-the-top drama starring Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus is by now notorious for his repeated shots at Oscar fame, and this film is, in a pleasant, crowd-pleasing and pretentiously boundary-pushing manner, the sort of film that does well at award ceremonies around the world.
Filmed in a world of shadows pierced by light, this tale of two infatuated priests in medieval Ireland involves itself in showing how the prejudices in our past still haunt the way we see the world today. The film often borders on the erotic, but always steers clear of it, intent on revealing how religious practices can indeed be more pornographic than any sexual encounter.
The film of course is clearly buying into that “homosexual films for straight people” genre that was popularised first by Brokeback Mountain, and the casting highlights it; Lazarus is the blonde and brooding Australian, Tobey Maguire is the innocent-faced Jake Gyllenhaal lookalike (the two will in fact play brothers in Jim Sheridan’s upcoming film Brothers). The duo have a surprising amount of onscreen chemistry, as the older and more world-weary Father O’Malley (Lazarus) takes the younger under his wing and teaches him things that priests aren’t supposed to know. There hasn’t been this much sin in a monastery since The Name of the Rose…
Ok, fine, I’m going to have to stop that there. I am, as many of you will already be aware, reviewing a fake film.
However, there is method to my madness; the above enjoyable diversion was designed to highlight the fact that while some films peak too soon, Tropic Thunder is a film that peaks before it even actually begins.
Tropic Thunder was expected all summer to be a comedy highlight of the year, and it doesn’t quite disappoint. In order to sell to us its would-be mockumentary behind-the-scenes style, it opens with a selection of trailers for fictional films starring Tropic Thunder’s fictional stars. The trailer for Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown presents Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) as a star who, despite the audience having grown up with him, has outlived his own greatest character and now fails to impress. The Fatties: Fart 2 conjures horrific memories Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor sequel, and is by far the weakest of the three trailers, presenting Jeff Portnoy as the sort of actor that shouldn’t be given work. The same could be said for his portrayer, Jack Black.
But as I’ve already highlighted it’s Robert Downey Jr’s Kirk Lazarus’s Satan’s Alley that steals the prologue and indeed the whole film, not just for its inspired innuendo but also for tapping into a very real and evident trend in modern melodrama; it’s ok to be gay provided you’re the underdog – audiences can relate to that.
The actual film itself is a sloppier affair than we might have hoped for. It’s never quite expressed what sort of film Tropic Thunder (that is, the film being made in this film) is supposed to be – its diverse cast (including the “5-time Oscar winner” Lazarus, method acting as a black man on and off camera) would seem to imply a large-budget Hollywood action film, rather than the artistic sort of war movie suggested by its writer and British director. For a film that we’re meant to think is meant to be Apocalypse Now, it never quite stops looking like Michael Bay’s Vietnam. The parody is diluted, if not utterly washed away.
Indeed, the revelation that the author, Vietnam vet Four Leaf, is actually a phoney, is meant to make us laugh at the thought of this farce not being true; but then none of the great Vietnam War movies claim to be based on true events. The audience is left at a loss for who to root for.
Anyways, when the film goes over-budget a more reality TV method is attempted, which in turn goes horribly wrong (in an awfully predictable gag – though a blessing since Steve Coogan hasn’t been this dreadful since Marie Antoinette). The actors are left in actual danger in the jungle and have to remain in character. Some genuine hilarity ensues – the infamous sequence in which the word “retard” is used repeatedly to discuss mentally challenged characters winning Oscars owes a lot to its predecessor in Extras (which had Kate Winslet make the same declaration to Ricky Gervais) but deserves credit, particularly for coining the now essential expression “going full retard”.
But there’s a lot that’s not funny. The one smart character, new-comer Kevin Sandusky (played by Jay Baruchel – getting confused yet?), is repeatedly ignored. Jeff Portnoy wants drugs (and does little else for two whole hours). A panda gets killed for the second time in a comedy in a year – ok, admittedly that was pretty funny this time!
As the film wears on its structure turns into the sort of rescue action picture that we were meant to assume this was not; a Missing in Action instead of a Platoon. There are again inspired moments, Lazarus’s “I’m a lead farmer” is perhaps one of the great one-liners of the decade. Speedman’s “I’m a rooster illusion” is the sort of wonderful non-sequitor that made Will Ferrell famous, but which he can no longer pull off.
What might have been a spectacular moment of comedy, Speedman’s adopted ethnic child (because all celebs must have one!) stabbing him in the neck repeatedly, was pointlessly, and one might argue unethically, spoiled in advertising for the film. Some jokes work a lot better unexpected and in context.
And while all of this is happening in the jungle there’s a whole subplot going on in LA. Tom Cruise, wearing prosthetics and a fat suit, plays Les Grossman, a vicious Hollywood executive and producer of the film-within-the-film. It’s an impressive turn for Cruise, who is surprisingly funny and carries of the grotesque excesses of the Hollywood execs and actually makes Grossman the monster we would expect him to be. But he is no doubt not the film’s highlight, as was assumedly anticipated by Stiller (who by the way co-wrote, co-produced and directed this film). The decision to have Grossman continue his hip-hop dancing throughout the film’s closing credits was a disastrous one that left the audience I saw it with cold and silent, uncertain if they were even supposed to laugh, let alone being tempted to.
There is a lot to like in Tropic Thunder, and it is certainly one of the best American comedies since Zoolander. But too many mistakes have been made. For example, Matthew McConaughey’s character, Speedman’s agent, is so entertaining that we might feel cheated we didn’t get to see the respective agents for Lazarus (assumedly a quivering wreck) and Portnoy (which might have given this waste of space something to do other than moan all film long). It holds together in the end, but only just, and largely because of inspired moments such as Satan’s Alley, Simple Jack and Lazarus (channelling Russell Crowe) and Speedman’s breakdown near the finale. Jon Voight deserves special mention for his brief cameo – he just looks so damned disappointed!
Tropic Thunder is a fun and clever action comedy, but it fails to be the one thing it wanted to be most: a satire. And failing that is the greatest sin of all.