Simple Jacks: Tropic Thunder, Frozen River, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
By Fernando F. Croce

The late Manny Farber's words kept flashing like a neon sign throughout Tropic Thunder: "Cartooned Hip Acting." As respectively a fading action-flick star looking to regain his blockbuster throne and a gross-out farceur angling to be taken seriously, Ben Stiller and Jack Black swell a basketful of sweaty tics and mugs into parade floats; as an Oscar-winning Aussie actor so Method that he surgically darkens his skin to portray a black guy, Robert Downey, Jr. suggests a different seminal essay by another recently deceased great writer -- Norman Mailer's "The White Negro." All pose, these guys, but conceptually it's okay since the film, directed by Stiller from a screenplay he co-wrote with David Lynch cuckoo Justin Theroux, is really about fakers winging it in the bush, from the old Nam vet with hooks for limbs to the gay rapper who has to insist he "loves da pussy!" Tropic Thunder is also the name of the movie being shot over the course of Stiller's satire (meeeeta, man!), a Vietnam War gorefest that promptly finds itself behind schedule and over budget thanks to the trio of male divas before the cameras. The maimed and leathery warrior whose book is being adapted for the screen (Nick Nolte) gives the frazzled filmmaker (Steve Coogan) a bit of advice: "Put those boys in the shit." Suddenly inspired, Coogan settles on guerilla-filmmaking, takes the pampered actors to the real jungle... and steps on a mine. Left to themselves, the thesps hang on to the screenplay as if it were a compass, and end up in a deadly Thai heroin cartel full of Stiller fans.

Like most instances when Hollywood pretends to roast itself, Tropic Thunder is not a third as "dark" or "ferocious" as it believes it is. The whole blackface bit, in which Downey recites the theme song for The Jeffersons as if it were a Frederick Douglass speech, might have had some sting had it said something about how the industry ghettoizes black actors. Instead, it just massages routines about actorly vanity that were already dusty in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and just to be on the cautious side there's a genuine black guy (Brandon T. Johnson) to show that We Disapprove. Safe sex, baby -- think of how further Downey's dad went three decades ago with Putney Swope, and without looking back to make sure audiences were still with him. Even the Simple Jack scenes about "retard" Oscar-bait feel limp and superfluous: Wasn't I Am Sam its own parody? With all due respect to the knobs who picketed the film without even watching it, I think critics asked to call Tom Cruise hip-hopping in a fat suit "edgy" are the ones who should feel offended. There are compensations amid the smugness. The moment Downey's faux blackness gives way to blonde hair and blue eyes is clown-with-runny-makeup striking, and there are pretty good bits from Matthew McConaughey, Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride. Yet nothing is as self-lacerating as the pop culture-whelped lisp Jim Carrey wielded in Stiller's The Cable Guy. Stiller works with a sketch-comedy mind, though he has some razors rattling in there -- his problem is to focus and sustain the slashes instead of just cranking up the volume.

*

Like Downey in Tropic Thunder, Melissa Leo in Frozen River is an example of a performance aiding viewers across quicksand. (Glaciers here.) Early on in Courtney Hunt's earnest Sundance award-winner, the camera tilts from the snowy ground to a close-up of Leo's craggy face and finds a veritable Texaco map of exhausted life. Due to roles in 21 Grams and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, she has become something of a specialist in hard-bitten women with few chances left, though even in the most squalid parts she projects a kind of spent grandeur -- I would love to see her play Clytemnestra. Portraying a trailer-park mama with a circle swiftly enclosing around her (AWOL husband, hungry kids, repo men), Leo keeps it all lean and human-sized, playing the character's plight and prejudice close to the vest. As the picture proceeds and the weary woman becomes a reluctant "business partner" with a Mohawk single mom (Misty Upham) in a venture involving smuggling immigrants across the New York-Canada border, Hunt's weakness for contrivance and underlined points threaten to elbow out her sensitivity. As refreshing as they are to see in the summer, the picture's gelid expanses remain broad metaphors, standing in for human isolation as surely as the kiddy carousel stalled in Leo's frozen lawn will spin again comes time for redemption. After setting up this story of recognition between desperate mothers with quiet authenticity, Hunt derails their journey by steering it toward a pacifying conclusion that suggests a Christmas miracle scripted by Paul Haggis.

*

After a three-picture sojourn in England, Woody Allen moves to Spain with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The humid cinematography and the talented, easy-on-the-eyes players were incentive enough, so I settled in for the Woodman's seventeenth "back-to-form" movie. Unfortunately, the stentorian assmunch sitting behind me kept spelling things out to his comatose date, saying crap like "She had reluctantly accepted suffering as a component of being in love." Soon, it dawned on me that said assmunch was the film's narrator, over-enunciating the characters' every shift of feeling and confirming the recent Allen as a pusillanimous filmmaker. It's not as if there's a chasm between the minds of these photogenic puppets and their actions -- the romantic roundelay involving two visiting New Yorkers (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson), a stubbly Barcelonan artist (Javier Bardem), and his turbulent ex-wife (Penélope Cruz) plays so tepidly that its Barry Lyndon voiceover elucidates little more than Allen's distrust of emotional storytelling and audience intelligence. Like the eager-to-seduce travelogue it is, the film dotes on chunks of Gaudí, guitar at night, stereotypically "tempestuous" Spanish tantrums and musings on Euro libertinage. Bardem's playful masculinity keeps him from becoming an exotic souvenir even while mouthing stilted platitudes; Allen pauses for half a minute to take in Cruz's beauty (raven mane, dangling cig, smoldering eyes) before turning her into a clichéd shrew. Following the drizzly moral conundrums of Match Point and Cassandra's Dream, critics seem to take to it as if to a warm bathtub, but to these eyes the spectacle of Allen mooning over a Johansson-Cruz smooch was not unlike Neil Simon scrambling to be Henry Miller.


Reviewed August 24, 2008.

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