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Now and Then – Tropic Thunder and Wag the Dog

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     Now: Tropic Thunder (2008)
         Then: Wag the Dog (1997)
 
Phony Warriors
     
           Phony War

The new Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder concerns a group of actors who unknowingly end up in combat with the local heroin overlord while shooting a Vietnam War epic. Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog (1997) took the opposite approach. That satire found a campaign aide and a Hollywood producer creating a phony war instead of ignorantly stumbling into a real one. Which upended reality stands up better?

The Business of Show Business
Both Tropic Thunder and Wag the Dog take shots at the arrogant excesses of filmmaking. In Tropic Thunder, it’s the movie’s three troubled leads: A fading megastar (Ben Stiller), a bad-boy comedian (Jack Black) and an Oscar-mad actor who’s gone beyond the pale (Robert Downey, Jr.). For Wag the Dog, it’s the amoral producer (Dustin Hoffman) — an old-school puppetmaster modeled on Robert Evans. Tropic Thunder has the edge here — its triple threat, which sinks to behavior any TMZ reader will recognize, delivers over-the-top hijinks. Motss and his silky facade is more of an insider’s critique.

Fake Heroics, Real Trouble
Tropic Thunder and Wag the Dog each revolve around the question of what’s “real.” In Tropic Thunder, the actors only think they can control events and eventually must struggle with a real messy reality; in Wag the Dog, the schism exists between what’s presented on the news and what’s really going on. Of the two, Wag the Dog makes a more striking point — as crews of professionals create fake footage of refugees fleeing bombed-out areas via green screens, what’s true becomes problematic on a larger scale.

Breaking Taboos
In Tropic Thunder, Downey’s method-mad star has undergone radical medical procedures to change his skin color so he can play an African-American hero; in Wag the Dog, media-ready Sgt. Schumann (Woody Harrelson) turns out to be an over-medicated felon with a rape conviction. In Tropic Thunder, the joke’s so over-the-top it’s insane, but as Wag the Dog follows Schumann from bright lights to darker acts, it’s less easy to chuckle.

The Verdict
Tropic Thunder‘s like getting hit in the face with a pie. Wag the Dog is like someone going after your funny bone with an ice pick. It’s the difference between spoof and satire. The first one gives you big belly laughs; the second one leaves your stomach queasy. Tropic Thunder‘s funny and forgettable, probably because it’s all one big joke on Hollywood; Wag the Dog lingers a little longer, probably because the joke’s on us.

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