At around 1am last night, I decided, for no particular reason except I sensed I probably need to now and then, to take the rest of the night off. So I watched Tropic Thunder, a movie I found to be more fascinating than I'd anticipated (there'll be spoilers in this post).
This is a movie about people who are so self-absorbed that they completely lack any ability to reach out to other people in a meaningful way. Most of the people in the movie are artists of one kind or another, and they substitute their craft for their inability to communicate with others, their only path to validation being recognition and appreciation of their work. Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, an actor known for big budget action films but who wishes to garner respect as an actor in more serious and artistic works. His need for this recognition is so great that, when he's captured by a community of druglords, he's content to stay with them when he discovers they're the only group of people possibly in the world who truly loved his performance in a movie called Simple Jack, for which Speedman went to a great deal of effort to portray a mentally retarded man.
Tropic Thunder's nexus, though, is really Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as a white Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus, a consummate method actor who completely invests his body and mind into every role, including the role of a middle aged African American man in Tropic Thunder's principal film-within-a-film (also called Tropic Thunder). Discussing with Speedman his portrayal of Simple Jack, and the absence of recognition Speedman received from the public and the Academy for the performance, Lazarus says, "Hats off for going there. Especially knowing how the Academy is about that shit . . . Everybody knows you never go full retard. Dustin Hoffman. Rain Man. Looked retarded, acted retarded. Not retarded . . . Autistic, sure. Not retarded. Tom Hanks, Forest Gump. Slow, yes, retarded, maybe, braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition? That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, Being There. Infantile, yes, retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I am Sam. Remember? Went full retard? Went home empty handed."
This is real insight into Academy politics. Best picture winners are generally those that are not only effective but also make a straight-forward, positive statement about the human mind. A movie about someone who is mentally disadvantaged in a realistic way is not acceptable because it assumes a point of view of reality where innocent people are genuinely disadvantaged and never rewarded. The culprit here is a version of the American dream, which states that anyone who works hard and goes for what they want will, in the end, be rewarded. So Forrest Gump can only have mental disadvantages if there are a corresponding set of advantages to even things out--miracles purchased with Gump's mental deficiencies. Capitalism as social and psychological dynamics.
That Lazarus frequently expresses genuine wisdom is ironic because, of all the different delusions the main characters are under, Lazarus's is the most patently absurd. There is no practical reason for a white man to be playing a black man, but Lazarus gives it his all anyway*. When asked why he maintains commitment to the role even after the film has clearly been completely derailed, real vulnerability flashes across his face as he says he doesn't know. But the almost obligatory scene near the end of the movie where Lazarus confronts his addiction to assuming other identities and tears off his wig and makeup feels curiously false, as though confronting his complicated identity problem is itself just another contrived narrative. His name, "Lazarus", also seems to point to an overly serious self-absorption consumed with the idea of rebirth.
But Lazarus isn't the only character attempting to construct identities for himself. Alpa Chino, attempting with gusto to present his identity as a womanising rapper, can't admit to himself that he's gay. Jack Black's character Jeff Portney is known for a series of films called Fatties where, in an obvious reference to Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor movies, he single-handedly plays an entire family of characters. Speedman's agent, played by Matthew McConaughey, can only express his commitment to his friend and client by going to ridiculous lengths to make sure he has TiVo in his hotel room. The film's pyrotechnics operator, Cody Underwood, fawns over the author of the film's source material, and is much like a lot of militant white trash having no real combat experience while nonetheless touting himself as a sort of soldier. Meanwhile, that author of the film's source material turns out to be a fraud himself.
Then there's Tom Cruise's inspired and hilarious performance as studio head Les Grossman, his fat suit, bald wig, and thick body hair clearly an instance of an actor disappearing to a ludicrous degree into a role, but the character himself is reality challenged apart from that. He chews out via phone the druglords holding Speedman hostage, hangs up and proclaims to his yes-men, "We don't negotiate with terrorists", all before even bothering to find out who he was talking to. A man clearly more interested in presenting himself than he is in real two way communication.
After the movie, I read War and Peace a bit before watching the new Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Not a bad episode, but not one of the best. It was nice hearing Summer Glau speak Japanese, though her accent was terrible.
*For those who think this concept is too far-fetched, I'd argue 1)it's comedy that's supposed to be over the top and 2) is it really so different from Memoirs of a Geisha, a movie about Japanese women portrayed almost entirely by Chinese actresses?