Tropic Thunder

Here’s a little teaser excerpt from a book I recently finished writing. All about movies.

Publishing and what-not I’ll worry about tomorrow…


Comedy/Action     107 min     USA/Germany     2008
d, Ben Stiller; w, Etan Cohen, Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux
A certain brand of Hollywood distilled: big budget, star-studded, high-concept, promoted to the hilt, overblown, and restless. What happens to a troupe of actors shooting a war film in the jungle when suddenly, unbeknown to them, the gun shots are real?

Let’s say I have a son (no reason not to, this keyboard doesn’t mind). Let’s call him Dylan (after Bob, of course). Now, let’s say we’re enjoying an afternoon together at the local farm – a chance for the young lad to pat small animals and hand-feed them chunky vegetables. It’s a little wet and chilly out, the kind of day where you need to have a coat on, at least until you’ve done a fair amount of walking, and mom’s off shopping with grandma… But the two of us are doing just fine, with our Wellington boots on and carrots at the ready.

“Papi” (this what I’ve persuaded Dylan to call me, as a discrete tribute to Red Sox slugger David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz).

“Yes, son.”

“What is Hollywood?”

Damn, that’s a good question (even if it is hard to figure what on earth made him think of it). More than that, I realize, it’s the kind of opening a young dad mustn’t spurn, a chance to furnish precious curiosity with information. Not wisdom, exactly – that would be a quite a stretch – but an answer, if I get it right, that might just be another useful rung on his ladder up to manhood.

“Well, it’s a place in California where most American movies get made – by a handful of film studios that were mostly started up, over a hundred years ago, by shrewd Jewish businessmen from Europe.”

Nothing doing.

“It’s a place where too much money is spent on too many films for too many people, and where only a few great films also get made, by really smart people, for other people who can have a good time at the movie theater without popcorn and soda.”

Great; it’s not even a disappointed romantic that I’m helping to shape, but a cynic through and through. Still, though, probably for the best that he doesn’t learn the hard way (whatever that would be). So time for a convoluted analogy… let’s see if I can’t rescue a spark from the frown.

“Here,” I venture, handing Dylan a five foot stretch of rope that’s lying handily on the grass, “put those carrots down a second, and take a hold of this. Nice and tight, right at the very end.”

“Ok, Papi.”

“Now – and don’t tell mom I let you do this – while dragging this rope behind you the whole time, go run through that muddy field where the pigs are… Just make sure that you keep holding it at the top. Then come back to me when you’re done.”

“Can I run through all the poop?”

“Sure you can. There’s a hose over there, and I’ll wash your boots off when you’re done.”

Much better. He’s loving this, and I think the ‘bit’ I’ve got to follow is a good one. That’s my boy! You churn that slop and kick up the filth, the pigs don’t seem to care. That’s right, one last dash, extra fast, splash, splosh, wallop.

“Excellent, Dylan.” Well worth a pat on the back. “Now hand your Papi the rope. Clean end, please!” So far, so good; he’s got that look on his face like the first time he ever saw a washing machine mid-cycle. Just keep his gaze on the rope and away from those carrots. And hold it like it has to be an arm’s length away.

This is Hollywood.”

Perfect: a pregnant pause, and two big eyes staring at pig-shit at the end of a rope. “See, now, let’s say that every inch of this rope, from one end to the other, equals ten films that Hollywood makes every year… And depending on how clean the rope is, that’s how good the movies are.”


“So, look. This end here, the bit you were really pulling through the mud, is…”

“Really poopy.”

“Exactly! A good couple of feet absolutely smothered in horrible brown pig-muck and thick, sloppy mud… Hollywood makes all those films, but none of them are any good at all. Not even a little bit. But see this stretch in the middle? Kind of splattery, right – but getting nicer closer to where my hand is. All those films are what?”

“Less poopy.”

“That’s right, son. Less poopy but still a little poopy… Wait, though. There’s one last bit of rope. Here – the bit that you were holding on to. See how clean that is?”

“Uh huh.”

“This tiny bunch of films are what make Hollywood so important. And – promise you don’t tell mom I used a rude word today – no matter how much shit on the rope there is, there’s always a wonderful clean bit at the end.”

Good lad, he’s taking it all in, storing this like a squirrel nuts in the winter.

“Can we get some lunch now?”

Ha. “Ok. But none of that yellow cheese sauce with your fries.”

Who knows, maybe someday he’ll be lucky enough to live in a world where there’s no such thing.


And Tropic Thunder? An easy film to agree on watching with family over the Holidays in New Jersey, but thoroughly middle of the rope, toward the end that whiffs of what was only pig food once upon a time. Of course it could have been so much better, but try telling the people who made it. No, please do. Tell them a dizzy budget dulls the edge of satire. Tell them that in-jokes about actors farting in fat suits is something less than satire. Tell them how Jack Black’s witless gurning is no substitute for jokes. Tell them, for the sake of my unborn child who will one day, if the stars may twinkle so, love the movies like his father does now, that a good idea is always and forever a good script away from being a good film. That even a short flick can sag some without support enough in the middle. That being a popular sort in Hollywood might secure a decent cameo or two, but ultimately, if you want your work to outlast the short moment of its immediate reception, you’re better off having friends in front of the screen than on it. Even if a little spark here and there – an on-form Downey Jr., Steve Coogan and Tom Cruise having a ball – gets you, just an inch or so, above the lowly mass. Tell them; someone should.


About newjonnytransit

Same as ever, only better.
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