(In theaters, August 2008) Can the clown honestly laugh at himself? That’s the big philosophical question to ask after seeing the big mess that is Tropic Thunder. A comedy about big-budget film-making co-written by two actors, Tropic Thunder feels like a broad attempt to hit an equally broad target. Some of the shots find their mark; others miss by such a distance that they defy the notion of a joke. Foul-mouthed and gory (with death played for laughs), Tropic Thunder has the bluster of a cynic but little of the wit: Once past the opening fake trailers and the initial premise, the film seems to lose itself in a vague haze. Occasionally, the jokes flicker back: You may recognize Tom Cruise’s voice, but his hirsute, balding, overweight expletive-spewing studio executive is so far away from his usual personae as to be unrecognizable. Still, Ben Stiller’s previous Zoolander has stood the test of time better than many comedies of its time: it’s entirely possible the Tropic Thunder will feel more interesting with time. But the scatter-shot nature of the jokes, the easy gags and the dumb characters don’t feel as if they’re the ultimate expression of what could have been done with the budget, that talent and that premise. Maybe the clown got complacent, falsely secure in the idea that the crowds would appreciate any attempt at self-deprecation while missing the point that even self-deprecation requires a modicum of effort and grace.
(Second viewing, on DVD, March 2010) A quick viewing of the DVD edition shows that either quite a bit has changed in-between the theater and “unrated” edition, or my memory hasn’t recorded many of the gags. Either way, the film does seem slightly better the second time around, although that that much better.