The Summer of Underwhelming Laughs: Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and The Foot Fist Way
It seems that every summer, I can bank on at least one comedy to provide me for a new reason to expand my DVD shelf. Last year, we had Superbad, Knocked Up, and Hot Fuzz, 2006 had Borat, 2005 gave us Wedding Crashers and The 40 Year Old Virgin… the list continues. However, this summer failed to give me the knockout, fall-on-the-floor laughfest that I was hoping for. Forgetting Sarah Marshall came out in April, the comedy season seems to have peaked then. Outside of the previously reviewed Step Brothers, the other comedies I felt had great potential this summer—Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, and The Foot Fist Way— all turned out to be mixed bags.
Pineapple Express should have been the easy base hit. Seth Rogen helped provide two of the best comedies last year (and of the decade, for that matter), and alongside a hilarious cast with James Franco, Danny McBride, Gary Cole, and Craig Robinson, it was a no-brainer for success. The opening scene (with the always funny Bill Hader) and the set up seem to indicate we were in for a treat. However, somewhere along the way, between their desires for non-stop laughs, violent action, and a buddy plot with heart, they simply put too many ingredients into the stew. Now that combination can be pulled off in the right circumstances (Hot Fuzz achieves all three beautifully, and even mixes horror in, to boot), but there’s a sense that the narrative is forced here. It’s as if the filmmakers believe that they can inject plot, abruptly switch tones between scenes, mix and match while shooting, and then tie it altogether in the editing room to make it a 2-hour piece of perfection. The slapdash nature of the film is evident from the get-go. Certain scenes try for slapstick far too hard, other scenes attempt in vain to capture the laid-back, improvisational punchlines of the other Apatow hits. The best scene in the movie is the final one, where three main characters sit at a cafe table and recount what occurred. It felt free, and was full of sharp one-liners, revealing what could have been if the actors didn’t have to run around, forcing slapstick and narrative into a film that really should have been about what the first twenty minutes set it up to be—what stoners think when they’re in trouble. Did wacky chases and epic fights really ever have to come into it?
After that, I was hopeful that Tropic Thunder would deliver the goods, with reviews calling it the best Hollywood satire since The Player, and boasting comedic turns from the on-fire Robert Downey Jr., and my guilty pleasure big-name star, Tom Cruise. Sure enough, those two didn’t disappoint. What did disappoint was the rest of the film. Again, the movie started right on the money, with gut-busting fake movie trailers for the stars of Tropic Thunder, including a parody of The Klumps that I can’t imagine Eddie Murphy could have been happy about. There’s also a sequence where they’re shooting the big finale of the film-within-the-film, a terrific parody of war film clichés. After that, Ben Stiller files down his claws, and proceeds with a safe comedy, no more satirical than The Three Amigos (a film which it borrows heavily from). There are funny bits here and there—a campaign to save the pandas led by a movie star, a movie star’s attempt to get an Oscar by playing a retarded person, leading to the best dialogue of the film where Downey Jr. cautions all actors to “never go full retard”—but too many targets are shied away from. The entire issue of the blackface Downey Jr. sports is undermined by the cartoonish black rapper also in the film (a perfect opportunity to poke fun at rappers-turned-actors wasted), who is only in the film so that Stiller can say there’s a character indicating to the audience every step of the way how wrong blackface is. Every time Downey Jr. gets into dangerous territory about his fake background he created for his black character, the other black character comes in and yells “YOU’RE NOT BLACK,” and provides some lame insult at Downey Jr.’s Australian origins. Also, Jack Black’s portrayal of an addict comedy star—again, something that might have hit too close to some people they’ve worked with—is undermined by his broad performance, resulting in yet another fat-Jack-Black-strips-to-his-underwear sequence (which, if Black isn’t careful, could end up being the same type of stupid trademark his character has in the film). There are long stretches with no laughs, there are bits of toothless satire, and there are chunks stolen from previous comedies. Downey Jr. and Cruise do their best, but it’s not enough to merit Tropic Thunder’s critical accolades, or even a DVD purchase.
Since Danny McBride provided the most consistent laughs in Pineapple Express, and his supporting role in Tropic Thunder showed similar moxie, I gave the indie flick The Foot Fist Way, which he and his friends put together, a try. It follows Fred Simmons, an obnoxious foul-mouthed tae kwon do instructor, in the vein of multiple Will Ferrell characters (it’s evident why Ferrell would endorse this film), as he gets his students ready for their next belt test, which will be overseen by his hero, a C-grade kung fu movie star named The Truck. It certainly has more vividly drawn characters than the other two films mentioned, and Simmons is definitely one hell of a creation. However, outside of a few very funny Simmons monologues (his final monologue to his wife is as mean and funny a monologue as I’ve seen in film the last several years), the film follows the formula, “Swear in front of kids, random act of tae kwon do violence, fight with slutty wife, repeat.” Once that novelty wears off, the laughs grow few and far between. I can appreciate what is on the screen, especially since the budget was obviously shoe-string, but it still fails to claim the title of 2008’s Definitive Summer Comedy.
So why aren’t the high-potential summer comedies this year as well-constructed as years past? I guess we could blame the writer’s strike, since Pineapple and Tropic could have definitely used more time on the desk. However, I’d like to propose that after the successes of R-rated comedies like Wedding Crashers, Borat, and more, that sloppily-made R-rated comedies in a similar vein were bound to appear. It’s greedy of me as an audience member to expect greatness every time out, and all three of these films did intermittently provide some high-quality laughs. In fact, since the reviews for Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder were so great, maybe I had my expectations unwittingly raised, or perhaps I simply am being too critical—clearly others thought they were fantastic. As for me? I’ll be waiting on the fall’s Sex Drive, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Role Models to hopefully quench my thirst for that R-rated comedy that will one day sit proudly on my shelf. These three have been relegated to that lower tier of comedy, the ones that get watched whenever they come on HBO but merit no purchase.