The Movie Club

All Hail Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2009 10:52 AM

The Movie Club

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OK, I'll get to stuff that made me laugh in a minute, but back up. Jeannette: Hancock? HANCOCK?! Whatever savior juice Will Smith is drinking these days, it's not doing his artistic judgment much good. I thought Hancock was screwed up in the beginning and cockeyed in the end as a not-all-that-hilarious riff on the notion of a grouchy, skanky superhero turns into a gooey lesson in personal responsibility with a dose of angels thrown in. But that was before I saw Seven Pounds last month—a gooey lesson in personal responsibility (and atonement as an extreme sport) that was crackpot from start to finish—and made Hancock look like The Man Who Fell to Earth. (Lesson learned: Don't use a BlackBerry while driving. Burning question: Do corneal transplants really change the color of the recipient's eye? Simple answer: Nope.) I don't know what private spiritual journey the ever handsome, ever likable, ever popular Smith is on or what reading of philosophy he's doing in his spare time, but I do know that it's messing with his timing.

Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder.
Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder

In contrast to which, I give you … the magnificent Robert Downey Jr., whose professional timing has always been sharp even when his private life has been befogged. And now that he can see clearly again, well—what a year it's been for this truly brilliant actor. I loved him in Iron Man, but since you've asked what made me laugh: It's all about Tropic Thunder —which made me convulse with laughter, right from the first brilliant fake trailers at the beginning to the bombs-away finish. As a self-serious Australian thespian so committed to Method acting that to play an African-American actor he dyes his white skin black (and assumes an accent out of The Jeffersons), Downey does a contortion worthy of Olympic gold. And when, as the Aussie-gone-homey Kirk Lazarus, he breaks into his famous disquisition about what constitutes an Oscar-worthy performance when it comes to depicting physical and mental disability, well, I thought he had struck movie-wisdom gold. (This might be the place to confess that while I'm tired of guys-with-their-guy-parts comedies, I'm a huge fan of PC-busting projects and hold South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut to be one of the masterpieces of turn-of-the-millennium comedy, crude cartoon division. I can sing every word of every song, and often do.)

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What else made me laugh this year: Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which also kinda touched me as it did Dana. And Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, an underrated little beauty that looked "regular" but was, I thought, amazingly radical in its seamless weaving of straight and gay lives. Oh, and 88 Minutes. Maybe that stinker wasn't supposed to make me laugh, but it did, especially whenever I looked at Al Pacino's hair. That hair! There's an instance of physical distraction I bet cuts across all categories of viewers. Certainly we critics leapt at the opportunity to describe his floofy, feathery follicular concoction. (And I just made that version up right now.)

Meanwhile, I'm going to wait to see if you have any takers on your Eastwood challenge, Dana; I really like Gran Torino. I really like old flinty-faced Clint—I don't have a fight in me. He's true to himself and true to the movies he wants to make—and in this climate, that in itself is a treasure. (So, for that matter, is Gus Van Sant—even, I'd argue, while making a more mainstream picture like Milk and certainly in making Paranoid Park.) Instead, if I could do some steering, it would be to bring the discussion back to what we love in the women we love on-screen and why they speak to us: Melissa Leo. Anne Hathaway. This year's Movie Club mascot, Anna Faris. Jessica, I know you were just heading out to pick up a refresher DVD of The House Bunny. What new depths to delectable, subversive anti-bimbo are you discovering on repeated viewing?

Blame Canada!
Lisa

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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