Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Summer of Silly

thirdstringer 6 Sara Vilkomerson’s Guide To This Week’s Movies: Summer of SillyBen Stiller’s directing career has been kinda quiet since 2001’s Zoolander, that goofy lampoonery of the male modeling world (an apparent favorite of the programmers at TBS and TNT) that tends to incite more than a few stoner chuckles. But the past seven years have been more about his acting, some good (The Royal Tenenbaums) and some fun (Night at the Museum, Madagascar) and some, um, somewhere in the gray maybe-it’s-a-rental zone (Along Came Polly, Meet the Fockers). So it’s been easy to forget that Mr. Stiller began his career writing and performing biting satirical sendups on The Ben Stiller Show. His latest directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, which he co-wrote with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, does more than just bring back the bite—it brings out the claws, too. Funnily enough, the big-budget movie that points out the utter ridiculousness of making a big-budget movie (particularly a not-another-one Vietnam period piece)—those coddled stars, the twitchy agents, the frazzled director, the grizzled vet who wrote the book on which the film is based (“beds give me nightmares”), the greedy and heartless studio mogul—has already inspired a prerelease hyping frenzy quickly followed by the inevitable backlash. The journey from monster buzz to totally over it, all before audiences even have gotten to see the film, could have just been another B-plot in Thunder, which starts with spot-on faux trailers for its film-within-the-film stars (Mr. Stiller plays a fading action star; Jack Black a pudgy comedian whose films tend to revolve around flatulence; and Robert Downey Jr. the serious, deeply Method Australian Oscar winner).

Tropic Thunder casts an unforgiving eye on just about everyone involved in the business, and sometimes the film is crude, vulgar and rude. But sometimes it is also very funny. Mr. Downey cements his 2008 winning year by making his Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes a radical skin pigmentation procedure in order to play an African-American soldier, one of the most bizarre and hilarious characters to be seen this summer. And other supporting turns getting less press—Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey, Mr. Black and the not-so-secret-anymore surprise appearance by Tom Cruise—all do their part to keep the film sharp. Here’s a thought: If Judd Apatow players like Thunder’s Jay Baruchel and new member Danny McBride are now also part of the Stiller comedy mafia gang, and the two groups have now merged their collective power to form an über-comic group (better pick a side, Sacha Baron Cohen), are they now all-powerful? Like, the China of comedy films? Think about it.

Tropic Thunder opens today at AMC Loews Kips Bay Theater, Union Square and Clearview Ziegfeld.

 

MEANWHILE, more under the radar, there’s another satire opening this month, one that might be just as funny and certainly every bit as bananas as Tropic Thunder. In Hamlet 2, Steve Coogan (who also has a small but essential role in Tropic Thunder) stars as Dana Marschz, a failed actor turned high school drama instructor in Arizona. Dana may have accepted the fact that the scope of his talent spanned the length of an STD drug commercial, but his passion for “the theater” is endless, even though he has only two students to stage his adaptation of Erin Brockovich and, in general, is seen by most—including his wife, Brie (Catherine Keener)—as a kind of buffoon. And yet, Dana thinks of himself more as Mr. Holland from Mr. Holland’s Opus, an inspirational teacher capable of transferring his love of theater straight to his uninterested students. When the drama department is threatened to be shut down, he has to dig deep: he comes up with a sequel to Hamlet. The production is (natch) a musical, and involves such numbers as “Rape Me in the Face” and “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus.” Unsurprisingly, the school wants to shut it down.

Mr. Coogan is hysterically funny in this role. Though not all the jokes work—at times Hamlet 2 seems as disorganized as the play-within-the-movie itself—the sheer zaniness of the film keeps you engaged. Watch for Elisabeth Shue playing … Elisabeth Shue! And if you make it till the end, you’ll hear what has to be our new favorite last line of a movie ever.

Hamlet 2 opens Friday, Aug. 22, at theaters citywide.

 

FAITH IS ALWAYS a tricky thing to make a movie about (just ask Mel Gibson). It can’t come off as too preachy, or gooey, or offensive. And unfortunately, that leaves a filmmaker very little breathing room. In Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole Is Here, from a screenplay by Albert Torres, we found ourselves wishing we could erase the religion plot line (which, unfortunately, makes up the bulk of the film) so we could just sit back and enjoy the beautiful cinematography and the actors at work.

Luke Wilson plays Henry Poole, who as the story begins is in the grips of a massive depression. He moves to a small, rundown house (Cheryl Hines has a very brief but awesome cameo as a real estate agent) and settles down to start Leaving Las Vegas-ing himself with donuts and booze. It turns out the doctor has recently told Henry he has very little time left to live and his response is to hibernate until the end. His neighbors, however, are of the popping-over variety. One of them, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), thinks that she can see the face of Jesus in a water stain on the side of Henry’s stucco job. This sets off a chain of events that involves George Lopez showing up in a priest’s collar. His neighbor on the opposite side is a very sexy single mom (Radha Mitchell), with an adorable little girl who mysteriously no longer speaks. Mr. Wilson is so incredibly likable that even when he’s supposed to be playing a prickly jerk, it’s hard to buy it, yet never have the actor’s natural hound dog eyes been used to greater effect. But a movie that not so subtly tries to make a point about faith versus science is a little hard to take at times. Our favorite part was when Ms. Mitchell’s character pointed out that the Jesus stain looked not unlike Mr. Wilson. It’s true! Mel, are you reading this?

Henry Poole Is Here opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center and Village East Cinema.

svilkomerson@observer.com