15, Selected Cinemas
Tropic Thunder is an action comedy which stars Ben Stiller, is produced by Ben Stiller and is directed by Ben Stiller, from a story by Ben Stiller and a screenplay by Justin Theroux…and Ben Stiller. So if, after this movie, you don’t feel properly Stiller-ed, I can’t think where you would go from here. I would also like to ask: how much Stiller-ing do you need? Whatever, it’s a send-up of Hollywood which starts rather dazzlingly — at last, a funny film that’s actually funny! — but then droops horribly, even becoming a victim of all the absurdities and excesses it is attempting to satirise. Still, at least it ends in a tiresome, protracted, slapstick shoot-out of the visually gross kind that I haven’t seen since… let me see… ah, got it!… last week’s Pineapple Express. I would also like to ask this: how many protracted, tiresome, slapstick, visually gross shoot-outs is a middle-aged housewife such as myself expected to sit through? One more, and I’m going to John Lewis and not coming out.
So, what do we have here? What we have here is the film-within-a-film conceit as we follow a group of actors on the set of a war movie — Tropic Thunder — being filmed in south east Asia. The actors are: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), a fading action hero; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr), the multi-Oscar winning, ridiculously extreme method actor who, called on to be black here, has had his skin surgically dyed and Jack Black as someone or other who is basically Jack Black, as Jack Black always is, when he’s not impersonating Terry Scott, which he surely is. Anyway, the film, with its ballooning costs and egos, is not going well so the director (a manic Steve Coogan doing manic) decides to heighten cinematic realism by dropping the pampered stars deep into the jungle where, inadvertently, they encounter real baddies and real combat.
The beginning is great, particularly before the film proper, when we are shown faux trailers for the stars’ forthcoming films. This includes Tugg Speedman in the Rambo-esque Scorcher VI — ‘He’s made a difference five times before and is about to make a difference once again’ — and Kirk Lazarus in Satan’s Alley, a tale of illicit gay love between two medieval monks, hilariously marked by meaningful stares, and which won ‘the crying monkey award at the Beijing Film Festival’. But then we are into the jungle where nothing feels as funny or as right again.
The bulk of this movie, alas, comes down to weak sketches held together by ridiculous action, vast explosions and more or less everything else it should be parodying. Yup, there is even the inevitable male bonding, done straight. As for the characters, they don’t go anywhere, but simply become repetitious. Downey Jr, all blacked, speaks as he thinks a black man would speak — ‘Hot damn!’ — over and over. OK, we’ve got the joke. Might we have a different kind of joke now? ‘No’, would appear to be the answer to that. This is a film that has one idea and then fails to have any new ideas, and is as prosaic and obvious as it is inelegant. It is also very loud. That said, there is one highlight. This is the character Lee Grossman, the balding, obscene, portly über-tycoon who is bankrolling the film, and is played by a star so unrecognisable it’ll take you half the film to work it out. And no, I’m not going to ruin the surprise by telling you it’s Tom Cruise. Sorry, but I’m just not.
Meanwhile, Unrelated, a quiet — phew — British film which features no explosions, no shoot-outs and almost no action whatsoever, but is strangely spellbinding none the less. There is a lesson in this for Hollywood, although I wouldn’t presume to know what it is except: ha! Written and directed by Joanna Hogg — if you don’t feel properly Hogg-ed, I can’t think where you would go from here — it is simply about Anna (Kathryn Worth), who is probably in her early forties, and who joins her friend and her friend’s family on holiday at a grand house in Italy. And that’s it, really, except that it simmers and simmers and simmers with the sort of tension, both sexual and familial which you know has to boil over at some point, but when and where and why?
Unrelated makes an absolute virtue of it’s small cast — Worth, as the kind of woman who is trying to work out whether life has passed her by, is amazing — and observes the English upper-middle classes so astutely that, at times, it is almost painful to watch.
This is a film in which nothing appears to happen, but everything does, rather than one in which everything happens, but absolutely nothing does, if that makes any sense. Anyway, the choice is yours, thank God. I’ve got enough to do as it is. I’ve got to measure up for curtains and then it’s John Lewis. I may be some time.