Step Brothers/Tropic Thunder/Pineapple Express

Adam McKay. 2008.
Saturday 8/2, Arclight Hollywood, 9:50pm

This trio of late-summer comedies were all high on my list to see because if there’s one thing that never changes in me, it’s the desire to sit in a darkened theater with a huge crowd and laugh together. I love that experience. I’ll see almost any comedy as long as it’s on opening weekend and there’s the guarantee of those conditions. How fun is it to watch Deuce Bigalow: European Gigalo alone on DVD? Not fun at all, obviously. But seen with a bunch of teenagers and morons, the film gets elevated to an event. Something perhaps unexplainable.

Step Brothers actually seemed interesting in its ownright though. The concept is so simple and ripe for comedy that it’s downright absurd that it’s taken so long to be made into a film. The casting of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly also piqued my interest, why I’m not sure. I’ve only really liked Ferrell in Anchorman and I like Reilly well enough but not in any comedies. Maybe I think he’s good casting due to his brilliant work on “Tim and Eric: Awesome Show Great Job!” as Dr. Steve Brule. Whatever the case, I went in with high expectations. Sadly, the film turned into an insufferable, laughless bore thanks to one fundamental misstep by the filmmakers. Maybe five percent of the jokes come from the concept itself. The brilliant setup is horrifically underused in favor of the other ninety-five percent of the jokes that come from the fact that both characters have the mental capacity of a ten year old. I’m so tired of films relying on this for the bulk of their humor. There’s nothing lazier than making your characters stupid for the sake of some laughs. Why did they not even try to create some real humor out of the circumstances? Why were Reilly and Ferrell essentially playing the same exact person? There was literally nothing to separate the characters and the actors and in this case, two was certainly not better than one.

Only Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins seemed to be trying to inject any sort of humanity into their roles but when juxtaposed with the performances of the stars, they just come off looking foolish. Also disappointing is the fact that, like Wedding Crashers, the filmmakers seem to think that the only characteristic a female can have that makes her funny is if she is an aggressive nymphomaniac. Before you accuse me of not embracing stupid humor, let me just point out that there is always two ways of approaching any kind of humor; a smart way and a stupid way. A smart approach to stupid humor is what makes films like Anchorman and Zoolander so enjoyable to me, but a stupid approach to even stupider humor just leaves me bored. Not even the Jameson and Coke I had to sip on at the 21+ screening at the Arclight could help this film’s cause.

Ben Stiller. 2008.
Wednesday 8/13, AMC Burbank, 4:50pm

My hopes weren’t quite so high for Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, even though I have been a fan of the films he’s made as a director. The concept felt like a stale ripoff of Three Amigos! (a film which was currently in theaters while Ben was filming Empire of the Sun, the time he supposedly came up with this idea), and the trailers seemed to think that having Robert Downey Jr. in blackface was enough to get anyone into the seats. I had heard that Tom Cruise makes a scene-stealing cameo and as an avid Cruise defender, that was the main reason I was willing to seek it out in theaters. Once again, I was met with a severly miscalculated and joyless experience. What were these filmmakers thinking?

First of all, satirizing how vain actors are is not original, nor is it very funny in and of itself. Satirizing war films and action conventions is also tried and true territory so there better be something else going on in the film to warrant its existence. For long periods of time, Tropic Thunder even seems like it forgets that it’s supposed to be poking fun of those genres and instead revels in the aesthetic and conflicts presented by them. I guess the thing that supposedly sets this film apart is the performances of Downey Jr. and Cruise. It’s certainly not Stiller, who has become the most bland of all Hollywood leading men, seemingly obsessed with flaunting his lack of ego by playing ridiculously over the top ego-maniacs. But playing them all the time and creating a $100 million epic for one to headline doesn’t exactly reek of humility. To his credit, Downey Jr. does create an interest caricature and one that raises some questions, but his performance is no better than one you’ll find on a “MadTV” sketch. There’s no depth. There’s no subtlety. And whenever he drifts into his real character, Australian Kirk Lazarus, he’s laughable. The third leg of the tripod is the least mentioned, unless it’s to call him obnoxious, is Jack Black. Much to my surprise, I thought he provided the only real laughs of the movie and was sorely underused. His line delivery when in character for the film within a film is acutely hilarious. Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Brandon T. Jackson all show some promise with throwaway roles while Matthew McConaughey is positively awful as Stiller’s agent. Spouting lines obviously meant for Owen Wilson proved just how good the latter is at selling a certain kind of persona and how much McConaughey was out of his league. And where were all the women? Not a single female character in the whole film? Even the assistant to the studio mogul was played by a dude (the ineffectual Bill Hader). Not that every Hollywood assistant is a female, but it certainly seems like a wasted opportunity to skewer the sexism obviously apparent in this town.

Speaking of that studio mogul, then there’s Tom Cruise. Despite what you’ve heard, this is not a cameo but a full blown supporting performance and it can be summed up in one word. Embarrassing. Much more embarassing than anything he could have ever done on Oprah’s couch. Like, I wanted to bury my head in my hands and weep for the man. This is a supposedly career-resurrecting performance? Are you kidding me? Someone needs to let Cruise and the writers know that profanity doesn’t automatically equal funny, but I guess they figured they had the fat suit for backup. Which brings up the most disturbing point. The film is preceeded by three parody trailers, one for a film starring each of the main characters. Stiller’s action parody pokes fun of Hollywood’s penchant for recycling storylines and product but then Stiller uses “Run Through the Jungle” and “For What it’s Worth” as the soundtrack to his Vietnam montages. Am I crazy or are those culled from a CD entitled “Hot Hits From the Vietnam Era Perfect for Your Movie Montage”? Most offensive and baffling though is the second trailer for Black’s faux-comedy hit “The Fatties: Fart 2”. Seemingly a gentle nudge at Eddie Murphy and his dinner table scene from The Nutty Professor, the joke is that the entire film is just Black in a fat suit earning laughs by farting. How stupid America must be to make this movie a hit? But then, forty minutes later we’re expected to laugh at Tom Cruise simply because he’s in a fat suit and dancing to Flo Rida’s “Low”. Seriously? Is Stiller a moron? At the end of the day, I actually wished I was watching “The Fatties: Fart 2”, it would have been more fun.

David Gordon Green. 2008.
Wednesday 8/13, AMC Burbank, 6:30pm

My last hope for comedic success was from the director of two of my absolute favorite films, George Washington and All the Real Girls. Green had begun to slip in my esteem after the torpid Snow Angels, but the combination of his talents and the Judd Apatow crew was bristling with too much possibility to ignore. Compared to these two other films, Pineapple Express is a masterpiece, because even despite some flaws it manages to wring most of its laughs from the right source- the chemistry and relationship between James Franco and Seth Rogen. Franco, in particular, is a revelation in the role of Saul, a lethargic drug dealer. His performance is one of complete immersion and nuance and a masterclass on timing and delivery. He can sell any line, any time, any where in this persona and Rogen is an ample foil, whowing a significant amount of growth from his days on “Freaks and Geeks” and even The 40 Year Old Virgin. Third lead Danny McBride teeters between flat-out, scene-stealing hilarity and insufferably annoying, sometimes within a scene, but by the end he’s a welcome addition to our heroic duo. The final scene of the film featuring all three is a gem, hinting at the subversive direction the film had the chance to really go in if only the temptation to blow shit up didn’t prove to be too much for the filmmakers. Because Pineapple works best when it follows its own stoner pace, letting the characters get to know each other and riff, for lack of a better word. When the shit goes down and we see how real people might react to these situations, it’s an honest to goodness treat. Specifically a moment like when Rogen takes a bad guy hostage while trying to infiltrate thier hideout, only to have another bad guy promptly shoot his hostage, leaving him vulnerable and outwitted. His instant surrender and horror at their actions is perfect, and perfectly unique. Less perfect, is when the film counts on our heroes to become legitimate action heroes and sees its climax spiral out of control.

One wonders if the entire action element of the story could have been done away with altogether. The villains, played by Gary Cole and Rosie Perez, are worthless and only serve the story to put our heroes in situations they never expected to be in. Their henchman, Craig Robinson and Kevin Corrigan also miss way more than they hit with their jokes, but there are a few diamonds in that rough. David Green has often professed his love for shitty 80’s action flicks like Tango & Cash, and while his sincerity may be suspect, he certainly backs it up here. In a film mostly and disappointingly void of any discernable style, the shitty retro score, Huey Lewis plot song and over-the-top Jaws wipes all show Green shortchanging his own film. This didn’t have to be a shitty action movie and sometimes it seems he’s not content letting it be perceived that way. Beautiful moments with the characters playing leap frog in the woods, or dancing with some kids behind a 7-11 are ripped straight out of Green’s past as an indie auteur. But then there’s those Jaws wipes. Nobody actually thinks they are funny. They just think it’s funny that they exist and that someone out there might actually think they are an acceptable way of getting from scene to scene. Their ironic use is a slap in the face of those other moments.

But we’re lucky to be left with these kinds of gripes with a film that’s brutally funny for all the right reasons. It’s not quite as good as Superbad, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s previous writing collaboration, even though it aims a little higher (pun intended) with its comedy. And Green hasn’t lost me as a fan yet, though I remain skeptical of his evolving sensibilites. This isn’t the perfect marraige of his best indie work and crowd-pleasing comedy that I was hoping for, but it’s a very likable film anchored by two fantastic lead performances and the most interesting comedy, by a mile, currently in theaters.

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4 Responses to Step Brothers/Tropic Thunder/Pineapple Express

  1. Anon says:

    “If anything, it’s giving it more publicity,” Hartigan said of the boycott. – Chad Hartigan

    You, sir, must be as thick as a rail.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Man. Anon sure is pissed.

  3. Lydia says:

    i totally agree with your thoughts on “stepbrothers” and “pineapple.” i saw “stepbrothers” first and had super high hopes, only to be really disappointed, annoyed, and almost embarassed (?) at some of the jokes.

    i saw a matinee of “pineapple” by myself a few days ago and i had the best time! it was so refreshing in comparison and i think it’s one of the best films i’ve seen all summer. i went into it with like, quasi-high hopes, as i tend to get burnt out on the seth rogen train, but i was actually really impressed and surprised by some of the stylistic and acting choices!

    good reviews. gretchen and i are going to have a tropic thunder plus joint date. we’ll see…


  4. Tony says:

    Step Brothers was the best comedy I’ve seen in a long time! I hold it right up there with Anchorman as Will Ferrell’s best films. Perhaps you need to see it again? The first time I saw it, I just thought it was good. The second time, it instantly turned into a classic! It’s so much better upon repeat viewings. I couldn’t stop cracking up for days later.

    I enjoyed Pineapple Express more than I thought I would. Since I’m not a stoner, I didn’t know what to expect. I was glad to see that it appealed to the general public with great comedy and exciting action.

    Tropic Thunder was really good as well. Not quite as good as the other two, but still very enjoyable and brilliantly done. I can appreciate the inside jokes aimed at Hollywood (Simple Jack = hilarity) and Downey’s character was a highlight. I can’t wait to see it again on DVD.

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