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The Wolf of Wall Street – It pays to prey

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Cult of personality: Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

“Greed is good,” someone somewhere once said. I can’t remember who. By the time you’re done watching The Wolf of Wall Street, you won’t remember either. Because greed is awful. Just awful.

But oh is it tempting. Temptation really is the theme of this movie, the latest from Martin Scorsese, one of the last American masters still in the business. Working with one of the finest casts he’s ever assembled, from a merciless true-story screenplay by Boardwalk Empire boss Terence Winter, Scorsese draws you into a world of bacchanalian excess and grotesquery, and invites you to excuse all the illegal activity that funds it because… well… damn it looks fun!

New York up-and-coming stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has barely dipped his toes on the floor of the market when the biggest crash in a lifetime, 1987’s Black Monday, hits, and “shits him back out” onto the streets. Desperate for work he takes a gig on Long Island, selling ‘penny stocks’, tiny shares in go-nowhere companies, but where his cut is 50%. There’s good money to be made for a man who can sell anyone anything.

It’s not long before Belfort’s set up his own firm, and finds a way of shifting penny stocks to real high-fliers – three quick edits and he’s back on Wall Street. If only he didn’t illegally own so much stock in the companies he’s handling…

Wolf of Wall Street is surprisingly unconcerned with how the markets really work, only with how that much money and risk destroys a man; much like Goodfellas was more concerned with the vices of the characters than the structure of the mob, whereas Casino was maybe a little too concerned with explaining how Vegas works. (As an aside, these three films combine to make quite an epic trilogy of criminality in the USA – the similarities are startling, but they compliment each other in ways that critics and academics will enjoy discovering for years to come). The focus of this film becomes Belfort’s addictions; coke, sex and, most terrifyingly, Quaaludes.

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

Grin it to win it: Jonah Hill

We see up close the effect these addictions have on Belfort and his cabal, from raucous office sex parties to $2 million bachelor parties. Sometimes his narration will mention the awful repercussions of these events, but Belfort skips quickly past these things; he doesn’t wanna spoil his fun. He doesn’t wanna break the illusion for us.

Like many of his films before, Scorsese takes us deep into his antihero’s personal life, revealing the grief caused to and by Belfort’s wives (Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie). But the real drama comes from his relationships with his closest confidants and fellow swindlers: Jonah Hill, Jon Bernthal and P.J. Byrne. Watching their drug-fuelled ramblings as the actors bounce improvised shtick off one another is when Wolf is at its best – the film is with little doubt the most laugh-out-loud hilarious film Scorsese has made.

But it’s not the best film Scorsese has made. Perhaps it’s his advancing years, or perhaps the grey walls and lined blinds of the stockbrokers office failed to inspire like the bright lights of Casino, but Wolf does not have the visual punch we come to associate with Scorsese’s greatest work. Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does great work keeping the film looking slick, but it’s still lacking something. When Prieto’s camera sails across the office floor as if on a jet-propelled string, it captures just the right sensation and takes in the faces of the key players spread throughout the room, but it feels like a basic tool in a way the steadicam shot through the nightclub in Goodfellas felt like an instrument of the gods.

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

High society: Margot Robbie and Leo DiCaprio

Wolf is the first time Scorsese’s direction has ever been overshadowed by cast and script. That’s not to say it’s poorly directed; any filmmaker should be proud to have a film of this calibre under their belts. But it’s still a noticeable shift. But then, what a cast! What a screenplay!

DiCaprio has never truly been better than he is here, finding a balance of humour, pathos, ultra-confidence and shysterism that he struggled to locate in the likes of Howard Hughes or Jay Gatsby. He seizes the film with all the relish he can muster and never lets go. When he’s selling, you’re buying. When he’s raging, you feel his anger. When he overdoses on Quaaludes and loses all motor-control of his body, you witness one of the finest slapstick performances since the movies learned to talk. But the success of the film is in how DiCaprio refuses to chew the film up, leaving more than enough for his co-stars (and indeed Winter has written the supporting roles so well that they have a fighting chance of holding screentime with a character as dominating as Belfort).

Jonah Hill startles as Belfort’s No.2, Donnie, a sexually confused, financially overwhelmed, drug-addled teddy bear. Rob Reiner plays Belfort’s dad, ‘Mad’ Max, brought into the company as a voice of reason and to police the rampant excesses of staff (during office hours). Jean Dujardin plays a Swiss banker so corrupt and smarmy he is briefly able to take over Belfort’s narration, leading to a telepathic battle of wordplay between the pair. Matthew McConaughey radiates glorious immorality in an early cameo. Kyle Chandler, the come-back-prince of 2012, has a one-on-one with DiCaprio that proves to be perhaps the film’s most riveting scene – the characters are so superbly drawn and performances so balanced that a TV actor like Chandler can spar with a superstar like DiCaprio and have everyone look at their best.

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Trade secrets: Matthew McConaughey passes on some much-needed advice

Winter, adapting from Belfort’s memoirs (with apparently very little indulgence), is the real star here. It’s his words that suck you in, his callbacks through dialogue and set-ups that keep the film rewarding across its three-hour run-time. Nasty turns of phrase such as cold-callers dubbing themselves “telephone terrorists” make this world seem as sordid and hateful as it is hilarious and tantalising.

Alleged rushing in the editing room does reveal itself with traces of odd cuts here or there, while the film struggles at times to make it clear exactly how much time has passed between scenes. The music, some of it poorly chosen, does little to help this. There’s indulgence on display when a television screen showing an ’80s TV series reveals an early role for actor Steve Buscemi – the camera insists on lingering until you’ve got the joke. He’s worked with these guys, doncha know?

But you can forgive it these trespasses; you can almost forgive Jordan Belfort by the end of it all. But can you forgive yourself for getting so sucked up and entertained by his world? That’s the question being posed here, and Scorsese, fuelled by the energy of a tremendous script and enviable cast on top form, once more leaves us pondering if we could do all these terrible just so we wouldn’t have to go through this world as a regular schmuck.

4/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

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And the Osc’Argo’s to… – Predictions for the 85th Academy Awards

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

Sunday night will see the usual meat parade of celebrities march down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, in their excessive ball gowns and ever-so-slightly personalised tuxedoes, before giving each other gold man-shaped pats on the back for being ever so special – or so the cynics would have you believe.

There are those amongst the cinephiles of this world who do feel the Academy Awards are a meaningless black hole of self-congratulation and commercialism, and they may be right in many respects. But they can’t take the fun away. For the more optimistic film fanatic, the Oscars provide the one night of the year where every person in the world (or so it seems) cares just as much about the movies as we do. Who cares if they cheapen it – at least they care!

The somewhat bold decision by the Academy to have the unpredictable and untested Seth MacFarlane host could well prove a trump card or a bright red self-destruct button. At the very least the quality of lampooning should be stepped up a notch from previous years. Other events of the night differ in the levels of excitement they inspire. A tribute to 50 years of James Bond should provide a quality showreel. A tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years will surely have less life in it than the roll call of the recently departed.

So how are the awards lining up? Well…

Best Picture

For a long time there this was anyone’s game. Les Misérables seemed a lock, before anyone saw how blandly it was shot. Lincoln was also an early call, which took a dip and then rose back up to the top of the charts. Zero Dark Thirty appears to have waterboarded its own Oscar hopes. Django Unchained has been greeted with bewildering raves from critics and audiences, but it is surely a little eccentric and excessive to warrant a win. Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, both fine films warmly received, seem to have been pushed out by their more realistic and historically themed peers. Amour is the token nod to a master filmmaker, which is all-but-assured the Foreign Language Oscar. Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a similar nod to a newly shining star in Benh Zeitlin, but don’t count it out completely – it’s been a huge hit with critics and would tickle the liberal hearts of Academy voters.

Have… have we won yet?: John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo

But realistically if anything is going to give Lincoln a run for its money it’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s light espionage drama has crept back into pole position after waltzing home with pretty much every best picture (or equivalent) award at every awards show thus far. Despite Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, it is unwise to count Argo out – with no best picture/director split since 2005, the Academy is well overdue such a discrepancy, although it would be the first film to win Best Picture with a directorial nod since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Evidently, stranger things have happened.

Should win: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Argo

Best Director

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

This seems an easier one to bite, what with Lincoln one of the top two Best Picture contenders. Steven Spielberg has already a Best Director statue without a Best Picture twin, for Saving Private Ryan, and his work on Lincoln is more than deserving. But so does Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is assuredly the work of full-blooded auteur. David O. Russell seems an unlikely candidate, if only for the scale of his film, and that goes double for Michael Haneke. A Benh Zeitlin win would be a coup and a half. He should be very proud just to be there.

Should win: Ang Lee

Will win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Abolition impossible: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

I won’t insult your intelligence by writing anything here. Other nominees include Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Hugh Jackman (Les Mis) and Denzel Washington (Flight).

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscar Games: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Now here’s a proper contest. So much to play for. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) are fighting to be crowned the new Queen of Hollywood. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is fighting to be the new Princess. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) is fighting for one last great honour. Naomi Watts (The Impossible) is fighting to stay in movies and not be condemned to television. The tide against Zero Dark Thirty seems to be squeezing Chastain’s hopes, and she will no doubt be back for more in the years to come. Lawrence is here a second time, and seems the likely winner. Riva and Wallis would both be record holders, oldest and youngest winners respectively. With a performance as strong as she gave in Silver Linings however, the same year her Hunger Games was such a surprise hit, Lawrence seems the best bet.

Should win: Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Oscar, the grouch: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Coming out of the Golden Globes, Christoph Waltz has momentum behind him, but his character Dr. King Schultz, the highlight of Django Unchained, is perhaps a little too similar to Hans Landa, the character who previously won him this award for Inglourious Basterds. Alan Arkin already has his tokenistic Best Supporting award for Little Miss Sunshine, so he seems an ill-fit. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) gave his finest performance in over a decade, but it was hardly the finest supporting performance of the year. The disdain the Academy has shown for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will work against Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one has to go to Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tommy Lee Jones

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Fantinetastic: Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

There was a lot of talk early on about Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln making her a likely winner, but the performances of Day-Lewis and Jones (and Spader!) have undermined her hopes considerably. Amy Adams gave a chilling performance in The Master, but it is perhaps too dark (and complex) for the Academy’s tastes. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) is surely just delighted to back in the A-list. Jacki Weaver was definitely in Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t remember a lot else about her performance. No, this is as assuredly Anne Hathaway’s win as anything could be. If Les Mis didn’t convince you of that, surely this video will.

Should win: Amy Adams

Will win: Anne Hathaway

Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has already taken a few trophies for his Django Unchained script, a fact which continues to baffle me. Mark Boal will no doubt suffer the Zero Dark Thirty backlash. John Gatins (Flight) and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom) seem like seat fillers, but count neither out just yet, especially the latter. This is the one category where Amour could really step-out of the woodwork, and not just be another Best Foreign Language Picture winner and nothing more. Here’s hoping.

Should win: Michael Haneke

Will win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay

With so many exceptional adaptations this year, this could turn out to be the most exciting and unpredictable race of the lot. Chris Terrio (Argo), David Magee (Life of Pi) and Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have all done remarkable work in their adaptations, while David O. Russell has written a truly charming yet affecting work from Silver Linings Playbook. But in terms of transmogrifying a source material into a work of cinema, there seems no greater nominee than Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Alibar’s one-person play Juicy and Delicious. But who the hell knows that the Academy wants!? Usually everyone, so why is this so hard to call?

Should win: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Will win: Chris Terrio or David Magee

Best Animated Feature

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Here’s another unpredictable little venture. DreamWorks’ confusing but beautiful Rise of the Guardians didn’t even make the grade, leaving an odd band of five vying for the Oscar here. Brave is decidedly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon, but it is at times breathtaking to behold. A respectful nod to the studio with a win, or a “must do better” note sent home to the parents? That would leave the major contenders Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former has the artistry, the latter the ideas – but both suffer from weak third acts. ParaNorman could scrape in, but its poor box office makes it the most forgettable of the quintet to the untrained eye. That could leave Aardman’s superb The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (I won’t be caught dead using its American title), but it has been largely overlooked in previous awards nominations. Another tough one to call, especially for one that film fans are so surprisingly passionate about.

Should win: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka Band of Misfits)

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short

Love-struck: Paperman

Love-struck: Paperman

Disney’s utterly delighting Paperman goes up against the surprisingly sweet Simpsons short The Longest Daycare. Both feature playful acts of defenestration, but the former is surely the forerunner in this contest. That said, it would be nice to see PES’s remarkably inventive Fresh Guacamole win. I mean, just look at the damn thing!

Should win: Paperman

Will win: Paperman

Best Foreign Language Film

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Amour

Moving on.

Best Documentary Feature

Due to unfortunate release schedules in these parts and unfortunate me schedules in my own life, I have not seen any of the nominees. Searching for Sugarman seems a firm bet based on word of mouth, but that’s all I can offer.

Best Documentary Short

See above, only shorter!

Best Original Score

This one could get interesting. Skyfall is a surprise nomination for Thomas Newman, and Dario Marianelli seems a wild card for Anna Karenina. Alexandre Desplat’s Argo score was one of the year’s better, while John Williams’s Lincoln was but a pleasant shadow of what the man used create in his prime. In terms of evoking a mood and sounding truly original, nothing should beat Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi score. Although the absence of both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas from this category is definitely disconcerting.

Should win: Mychael Danna

Will win: Mychael Danna

Best Original Song

That Adele is so hot right now. Not much chance of that going any other way. Expect the manner in which Seth MacFarlane handles his nomination in this category (for ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted) to be the making or breaking of his performance on the night.

Should win: ‘Skyfall’

Will win: ‘Skyfall’

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Stop pretending you care.

But for what it’s worth I’m calling both for Life of Pi.

Best Production Design

As was the style at the time: Lincoln’s stellar production design

Another potential shocker that could turn up just about anything. Certainly Anna Karenina was intriguing to behold, and Life of Pi did some remarkable things with its visuals. But bigger is surely better in these sorts of categories, so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables and Lincoln seem the better calls.

Should win: Anna Karenina or The Hobbit

Will win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography

Shadow play: Roger Deakins's cinematography in Skyfall

Shadow play: Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins has quite horrifyingly never won an Oscar, and while it would be unlikely for him to finally win for a Bond film, it isn’t impossible Skyfall could nab this one. Still, Seamus McGarvey’s luxuriant Anna Karenina and Claudio Miranda’s magisterial work on Life of Pi are almost too much for Deakins to counter. Janusz Kamiński’s bright yet dreary Lincoln looks real and beautiful, but is perhaps too drab for Academy tastes. Robert Richardson’s work on Django is more than anything what creates that film’s style, but away from its frankly gorgeous exteriors, it has not much to offer. Another tough one to call.

Should win: Roger Deakins or Claudio Miranda

Will win: Claudio Miranda

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

"It's the beards": The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“It’s the beards”: The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Oh right, this is still an award. Um… The Hobbit? Actually, going by traditional winners Hitchcock will probably nab this. But no, I’m saying The Hobbit. If only for making Christopher Lee look in his 60s (he’s 90!).

Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Costume Design

All dressed up and somewhere to go: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michelle Dockery and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

2012 was the year of not one but two dreadful Snow White films, but both deserve a bit of credit for the costume work, and here that credit is. The late Eiko Ishioka could well receive a posthumous Oscar for her work on Mirror Mirror, but the film was so frankly despised it seems improbable. Snow White and the Huntsman seems even less likely a winner. With Les Mis vying for a top spot with Lincoln in terms of historical realism, the eye-melting costume work of Anna Karenina, by Jacqueline Durran, has a very good shot at stealing the title, especially if diamonds can count as costuming.

Should win: Anna Karenina or Mirror Mirror

Will win: Anna Karenina

Best Editing

There were no standout examples of editing nominated this year, and thinking back on 2012 it’s hard to think of anything exceptional that has been cut from the list, either. Zero Dark Thirty was the real disappointment, after the phenomenal editing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker displayed. Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook were both edited efficiently but without flair. While Tim Squyres tied Life of Pi together beautifully, the energy created by William Goldernberg’s editing of the opening 10 minutes of Argo more than makes him deserving of the award.

Should win: Life of Pi or Argo

Will win: Argo

Best Visual Effects

Film school: Life of Pi's astonishing whale

Film school: Life of Pi’s astonishing whale

Snow White and the Huntsman gets another nod here, and will go home empty-handed and undeserving. The Avengers and Prometheus will cancel one another out, leaving this a battle of scale versus creativity. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could win out through sheer force of everything, but it seems unlikely to beat Life of Pi’s controlled, fluid and never utterly in-your-face world building. All the orcish hordes of Middle Earth can’t compete against the colossal might of a leaping whale.

Should win: Life of Pi

Will win: Life of Pi

And that’s the lot of them. How right I’ve been we’ll see on Sunday night. It’s the predictability of the Oscars that makes the upsets all the more shocking, and entertaining, so with any luck, for my sake at least, I’ve been very, very wrong.

If all goes to plan I’ll be live-blogging the event, so be sure to check back here, or follow my Twitter feed. It’s gonna be a long, fun night.

Well, maybe not fun. But long. Definitely long.

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Satan’s Alley – Review

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.

3/5

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