Photo by Dave Gatley, U.S. Marine Corps
Heading into the first weekend of the fall season, Tropic Thunder remains #1 at the box office ($86.9 million so far). And with summer leftovers like Bangkok Dangerous, the new action vehicle for Nicholas Cage’s hair extensions, opening today, Ben Stiller’s hit comedy is likely to retain its top spot on Monday.
This side of the Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder was probably the most critically acclaimed movie of the summer, and many of those sensible critics who weren’t fooled by the Batman hegemony were, by contrast, praising Stiller’s film as “an imperfect work of genius” (Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek) and “more instructive, more authentic, than any pop culture tribute Tarantino has ever done” (the New York Press‘s Armond White).
Tropic Thunder has been universally described as a satire of Hollywood vanity, but how deep does this satire run? The film ends with an evil movie producer (played by Tom Cruise in Jewface) and his preening actors (played by, among others, Stiller himself) triumphant at the Oscars and filthy rich because of it. Laugh all you want, but this is what used to be called laughing all the way to the bank. And really, how seriously can you take a critique of Hollywood that’s joined at the hip with a comeback role for the biggest and most vacuous movie star of his generation? Pause for a moment to consider Cruise’s strained relations these days with the suits—after all, it is the backstory to his performance—and then try to conclude that his expletive-loving schtick as Les Grossman is all in good fun.
The New York Times‘s Manohla Dargis may have said it best, and most damningly, when she called Tropic Thunder “safe.” While The Player (1991) is still the zenith of Hollywood takedowns, even its director, the late Robert Altman, was not so full of himself as Stiller & Co. as to believe he’d done more than scratch the surface. “What we show in The Player is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood,” Altman told an interviewer. “It’s just a funny conceit, that film, and the truth is much, much worse.” —Benjamin Strong