By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood July 24, 2008 at 8:05AM
I saw three summer comedies in a row this week, two from the Judd Apatow factory, Step Brothers and Pineapple Express, plus Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, which screened at Comic-Con last night (Pineapple Express screens here too). UPDATE: Here's Todd McCarthy's Tropic Thunder review.
Step Brothers is a great premise that has been sketchily executed; Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly are often hilarious acting like ten-year-old boys, but the concept quickly wears thin. Pineapple Express is the best of the three movies, and the smartest; Seth Rogen, James Franco and Danny McBride are inspired throughout as pot heads on the run from some killer drug dealers. An intelligent director, David Gordon Green, an indie dramatist-turned-studio-comedy guy, makes all the difference. These guys cared about the details. It's not sloppy.
While Tropic Thunder is also funny, it's also really expensive, so it gets top-heavy as a star-studded big- budget action film shot on location in the jungle. The Comic-Con crowd ate it up--especially the opening intro with Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. competing for Comic-Con geek cred--although I had a sense that it was probably too inside for many of them. It's a rather reflexive and sophisticated treatise on filmmaking in Hollywood today as well as the art of acting. Robert Downey Jr. (as an Australian actor staying in character as a black dude) and Stiller (as an action hero who can't discern reality) dissecting their identities as actors is hilarious. Tom Cruise and Matthew McConnaughey also offer support with risible results as producer and agent, respectively. Actor/screenwriter Justin Theroux did so well with this he's writing probably the hottest project in town right now, Marvel's Iron Man 2.
On the City of Ember promo train from L.A. to San Diego on Wednesday, I found myself in close quarters with folks from the likes of Time, LA Times, aint-it-cool-news, sci-fi channel, and CHUD. I've always prided myself on being able to hold my own with the fanboys, but was stopped cold when one guy asked me point blank, as a large group listened intently, what was my favorite Adam McKay/Will Ferrell movie? My heart stopped cold. "Um, I've never seen Talladega Nights," I stumbled. "I didn't like Step Brothers that much either. So I guess it would have to be Anchorman."
So lame. BTW, the train ride was a brilliant promo idea on the part of Fox Walden's Jeffrey Godsick, who commandeered two cars and attached them to a train, showed 23 journalists some footage of Monster House director Gil Kenan's City of Ember, which was adapted by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) from the 2003 novel. It took Playtone's Gary Goetzman four years to get the movie made, for a price, $35 million.
The footage was promising: Saorise Ronin runs around an amazing set that was built by production designer Martin Laing in Belfast, Northern Ireland in a gigantic ship factory eight stories high. (The Titanic was built there.) He emptied it out and built what may be one of the last gigantic practical sets.
I got Kenan to admit that having come from the freedom of the CG animation world, he was a tad frustrated by the limitations of live action filming, and may return to animation. The movie looked like one of those fun escape into a future fantasies that still relate to the real world: deep underground, City of Ember is running out of resources, and mayor Bill Murray is hoarding. "It's a relevant and potent morality tale," said Thompson, "about society running out of food and power, corrupt at the top and so startlingly to the point, as the grown-ups are asleep at the wheel, in denial."
It's the younger generation that figures out how to save the human race from extinction. Shades of Wall-E.
[Originally appeared on Variety.com]