'Tropic Thunder' Aftermath
Tropic Thunder poster
By Lee Tistaert     Published August 14, 2008
Tropic Thunder is now feeling like one of those flicks in which big city audiences applaud and rave about while most everyone else just stands back.
What in the hell happened to Tropic Thunder? All the indications this year have given me the hope that this movie could be a surprise box office smash at the end of summer. The early ads for the flick induced a lot of curious buzz about what these comedians have been thinking up for this bizarre concept, and from mid-May on, the trailer was even getting audience applause in theaters. In other words, I thought I could feel the potential thunder this movie could bring. Guess not. This movie is not catching on with most people after all. A $6.5 million Wednesday is pretty troublesome for Tropic Thunder, especially when last week's stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, grossed $12 million with a lesser-impressive cast. If word of mouth doesn't drive it, this movie may stand a chance at being beaten by The Clone Wars.

Since my first viewing of Tropic Thunder, it's been gradually hitting me: This movie actually may not be for as many people as these comedians hoped it would. Take the introduction for example -- It is very much like Grindhouse, for geeks who know movies and formulas inside and out. Tropic Thunder made me think of the Comic Con Convention. This is a movie made by people who live and breathe movies and understand inside jokes about those movies, which is Comic Con. But that is not always a mainstream view -- It is considered "inside" humor by the geeks because not everyone else feels the same way. The action movie parody, Shoot 'Em Up, with Clive Owen, had even taken over Comic Con and got cheers and applause from all the eager fan-boys there. That movie didn't follow through at the box office because no one else cared about the parody -- It was only for a niche.

During the intro of Tropic Thunder, I was amused by the fake trailers, but there was a group of people sitting in front of me who didn't crack a smile, and I heard one of them utter: "This is so retarded." I think part of the reality behind Tropic Thunder is that not all audiences hate the conventions of which these comedians are spoofing. It reminds me of Team America: The ads for that movie got all the film geeks excited but most people had no idea what the movie was trying to be judging by the previews. They didn't go see it because they couldn't make sense of it or they just didn't care. Team America did okay for its budget at first, but it took a few years for more people to muster the courage to sit down, watch it, and try to understand it. Team America isn't for everyone, and it's been hitting me that Tropic Thunder isn't either: It's too mean. And mean comedy does not always sell like gangbusters.

It seemed for a while like people wanted "mean" with Tropic Thunder, like they did with Borat, but it does not look that way. Look at Goldmember's success -- It was cameo-ridden, ultra-silly, and parody-filled, but with a huge air of sweetness over the parodies; it was not that mean. The comedy was cute, even if it was somewhat irreverent -- It wasn't "too" mean. Goldmember played on a lot of comedy levels without being too offensive, and I think Mike Myers knew that he couldn't be as edgy as the concept could have gone. That is why the movie blew up -- It was so cute and silly, everyone went for it. Yeah Tropic Thunder may be silly as hell, but it's not that nice in comparison, and the material is probably too mean to get a lot of the friendly audiences that flocked to Goldmember in bus loads.

And Borat may have been a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon like The Blair Witch Project. Borat was a slap that no one saw coming, by a comedian of whom most people in America couldn't take their eyes off because his character was so innocent and naive -- He had no idea how rude he was being, which made him a novelty. Also, most people had no idea who Sacha Baron Cohen was leading up to Borat's debut, which worked gangbusters for the flick because everyone was asking the same thing: "Is this for real?" That was the vibe behind Blair Witch as well. Here, moviegoers are familiar with the frat pack, and so there is not nearly as much mystery as to what is going on. The fact that barely anyone knew who Cohen and Borat was, was part of the trick -- It made the masses want to find out for themselves.

Tropic Thunder is now feeling like one of those flicks in which big city audiences applaud and rave about while most everyone else just stands back. It's too risky, the humor is just too out there. If you don't get the jokes or don't like the jokes, the movie sucks for you, plain and simple. And the box office has proven that Hollywood insider stories rarely hit big -- These movies are aimed for specific demographics who understand what the content is saying.

Let's go back to Team America. When I first heard about Tropic Thunder, Team America was the first movie I thought of as a comparison. That movie's purpose was to offend everyone, in edgy fashion, but there was barely a layer of sweetness to the harsh comedy. Most people don't like being made fun of, and many hate it, especially when it's just downright mean. Tropic Thunder even borrows a few gags from Team America, including the notion of feeling "cold" while you're on the brink of death, and latching on to someone. It's kind of cute and silly and some will laugh at the jokes behind the jokes while others will just sit there. That's Tropic Thunder. I thought these comedians would have the power to rise above the "insider" curse of death at the box office, but they probably have a lot of very nice fans who are looking at this movie and just shaking their heads at the foul play, waiting for these comedians to make a nicer and sweeter movie that they can actually see without being offended.

I thought Tropic Thunder could play like an R-rated Meet the Fockers, or at least for opening weekend sake. But look at Fockers, closer: It was PG-13, and the humor was broad and open to most everyone. It was extremely mainstream. Having seen Tropic Thunder twice now, it is hitting me how anti-mainstream the movie is. The film has a huge self-important vibe behind it as if these comedians have waited years to be in a silly, harsh comedy like this (Jack Black even has a line of dialogue that drives this point home) -- The irony is that most America does not think the way some of these comedians do. And that is also the joke behind the film itself -- These Hollywood players are such egomaniacs, all they think of is themselves. Not a lot of people like being around egomaniacs because they can be very annoying, and that's the ironic comedy behind it all. That's the whole joke.

Maybe Tropic Thunder will pick up on the weekend in its box office grosses and maybe it won't. Big or not, the comedians at least got this film out of their system and can move on happily now. It seemed designed as the last big movie of the summer, to cap it all off. And while the box office may not exactly follow through on that, it seems to be more of a personal victory for the actors involved, like handing moviegoers who are like them something to chew on for the time being. In other words, if the geeks like it, then all the better.
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