Monday, August 18, 2008

Pineapple Express vs. Tropic Thunder

Two of the summer's most anticipated comedies hit theaters in the past week or so, and now I've seen them both. And guess what... I have an opinion about them.

Judd Apatow's latest production, Pineapple Express, a comic romp through a crazy couple of days in the lives of two stoners who get mixed up in a murder plot, is smart, witty and very tongue-in-cheek as it thoroughly and consciously covers every action-movie cliche it can. There's a gratuitous car-chase scene, complete with crashes, smashes and vehicles flying through the air. There's a huge gun battle, a burning building, and yes... even ninjas. And yet - to me at least - none of it felt forced or overdone. It was well-worked into the story - in a manner that years of cliche movies have taught us to accept - and yet acknowledges the ridiculousness of it all by highlighting the outrageousness with humor.

For example, when Dale Denton (played by co-screenwriter Seth Rogan) runs out of ammo in the semi-automatic machine gun he should by no means have any idea how to use, he laments for only a moment about this problem before noticing another fully-loaded identical gun hanging on the wall behind him. "Oh!" he exclaims. And, as is the case with most action films, no further explanation is given. Only here, the stupidity of such a bend of reality is highlighted by the characters' humor. This is a flash of brilliance that Pineapple Express does better than any other film, but this is only in the third act.

The entire first half of the film is dedicated to making us fall madly in love with Denton and his pot dealer, Saul, portrayed 95% perfectly by the amazing James Franco. This is the best role I've ever seen Franco play, and it's even better when you realize that the film was written with the two actors in mind for the other's role. Franco was to play Denton, the straight-laced working man with an insatiable lust for weed, and Rogan as the go-no-where, TV-addict pot dealer whose usual attire consists of whatever he wore to bed the night before. It was Franco's brilliant idea to switch the roles, thus creating for himself one of the most enjoyable characters I've seen on screen in a while (that is, if we forget about that Joker guy). Pineapple Express also benefits from the amazing performance of newcomer Danny McBride as Red, Saul's sightly effeminate, cowardly-but-lovable dealer who comes around as a pretty cool guy in the end.

I think this film will only be as funny as it is (for that gift of self-consciousness) at this particular point in history, on the cusp of the dying action film genre that it parodies and in the birthing phase of this new Golden Age of comedy lead by Apatow and a Rogan and a small crew of others. This is indeed a "passing-of-the-torch" moment... especially when held up against....

Tropic Thunder. Hmm. I was expecting something.... more. Rolling Stone hailed this film as the greatest comedy in history or something to that affect. For me, it was a signal of the coming demise of the 90s comedies. And it goes out in a blaze of glory (not to be confused with the stupid figure skating Will Farrell comedy of a similar name, which should have been a clear-cut sign of the 90s comedy apocalypse).

After a few fake commercials and movie trailers, Tropic Thunder jumps immediately into the plot. We're given hilarious but minimal introductions to the characters - certainly not enough to make us give a damn about them, so they're left pretty 2-dimensional throughout the story. Sorry folks, but every movie - and especially a good comedy - requires our emotional connection with the characters.

The plot, of five actors who are dropped in the middle of Vietnam and forced to act out this new epic Vietnam War movie guerilla style, is thin but excusable - and we go along on the ride - but when the screen-time must be shared by three of Hollywood's biggest names, and then shared again by several of Hollywood's even BIGGER names, a lot of the story is cut down to give everyone an equal cut. This film suffers from too many big names.

Even at its most hilarious points, Thunder just falls flat. Don't get me wrong, I laughed a lot at this movie, but it was nothing new. This was the same old tricks from the star and director Ben Stiller. Nothing was risked so nothing was really gained. I love Stiller, but I still think he was better in Heavyweights (1995) (co-written by Judd Apatow! How about that!?!).

Definitely, the best thing about this movie was Robert Downy, Jr. as Kirk Lazuras, the Australian 5-time Academy Award-winner, who gets so deep into his role as an African American soldier that he undergoes a procedure to make him look exactly like a black guy. And he kinda does. And he never gives up the character. That was funny. But not because it was goofy - only because he was so damned serious about it.

And furthermore, in a timeless monologue that will forever change the way the Hollywood approaches the "mentally challenged" characters, Lazarus chides Stiller's Tugg Speedman for playing his last movie roll, Simple Jack, as "full-retard". That was some amazing screenwriting. Danny McBride shows up in this film, too, as the pyrotechnics nut-ball who needs to be saved by the rest of the cast. Let's just say he was much better utilized in Pineapple Express, but probably got a way better paycheck here. Oh, and SNL's Bill Hader is in both films, too. He's funny.

But other than that, nothing special happened in this film. Jack Black's talents were almost entirely wasted here, and the presence of certain other Hollywood mega-stars was completely unnecessary. In a single weekend, I saw the death-knell of one style of comedy and the glorious birth of the new one.

Save your money on both, however, as these are best watched at home on a Sunday afternoon with friends around, relaxing and eating nachos. Now that's how you watch these movies!

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