It's a Jungle Out There 

The poor single moms of Frozen River are more heroic than the spoiled movie brats of Tropic Thunder. But you knew that.

Melissa Leo is finally getting her turn. Long lionized by discerning audiences and critics for her perceptive character acting in such diverse projects as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Hide and Seek, 21 Grams, and TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, Leo has usually been labeled an "actor's actor." But with her leading role as Ray Eddy, one of the two solo mother protagonists of filmmaker Courtney Hunt's social drama Frozen River, she's front and center in a part that, with any justice, should gain her the recognition she deserves.

Ray's face shows us the story before we even really get into it. Writer-director Hunt opens the film with a close-up of her, outdoors in front of her upstate New York mobile home on a frosty morning, starting the day with a cigarette. The worry on her face, the pinched, exhausted expression, is a picture of despair. As we quickly get to know Ray and her two sons, teenager T.J. (Charlie McDermott) and little boy Ricky (James Reilly), their economic boundaries come crashing into focus — Ray's miserable part-time job as a clerk at the Yankee Dollar store; her gambling-addicted, absentee husband; T.J. and Ricky's spare-change school lunch money; the family dinners of popcorn and Tang; mobile home with busted water pipes; etc. Ray and her family represent the working poor that reporter Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in her book Nickel and Dimed, but there are further trials in store for her beyond the day-to-day indignities.

A chance meeting with Lila Little Wolf (movingly played by Misty Upham) outside the Territorial High Stakes Bingo hall one day leads Ray into dangerous new surroundings in the unfamiliar Land of the Mohawk, where the laws of the United States give way to tribal authority. Lila, a single mother whose infant daughter has been taken away from her by the council and adopted by another member of the tribe, reluctantly joins forces with Ray in a high-risk enterprise: human smuggling across the US-Canada border, in this case the frozen St. Lawrence River. Their passengers are Chinese and Pakistanis en route to the promised land, ironically the place where both Ray and Lila have struck out. The river is wide and full of rough patches as the late-winter thaw begins to arrive. And naturally there's human interference, in the form of brutal smugglers as well as the local state trooper (Michael O'Keefe).

Leo and Upham do more than merely indicate helplessness and desperation as the two women. Ray and Lila, a pair of border-town losers whose stories would ordinarily get overlooked, come to represent everyone who's ever been up against it in this country, especially the women. They express their rage and sorrow in different ways — Ray with a Greek mask of suffering, Lila with deep-water stoicism — but when they team up, there's suddenly a brief glimmer of hope. No Thelma & Louise fake-heroic catharsis here, just a snapshot of life on the edge, and a simple tale of doing what it takes to bring a lost baby back home or to put a toy under the Christmas tree. You probably pass a Ray or a Lila in the aisles at the Safeway every week and don't even realize it.

Filmmaker Hunt made the original Frozen River as a short in 2004, with both Leo and Upham (a Montana native stage actor) in the lead roles, then expanded it into a narrative feature. Hunt and her crew shot the film on Panasonic Varicam in the chilly countryside outside Plattsburgh, New York.

The weather was considerably hotter in Hawaii, standing in for Vietnam, as the location of Ben Stiller's surprisingly slipshod war-movie-and-Hollywood parody, Tropic Thunder. "War-movie-and-Hollywood" because director Stiller and his writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, try to skewer both the movie biz and macho Vietnam war movies on the same satay stick. But the stick breaks under the load.

It opens promisingly with a string of fake trailers to introduce the characters, a cast of insecure, self-absorbed screen actors. Tugg Speedman's (Stiller) latest release is an action flick with cute animals — he has a thing for furry creatures. His biggest hit, it seems, was the Forrest Gump-like story of a saintly rural imbecile, Simple Jack. In the trailer for Satan's Alley, blond-haired Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) stars as a gay medieval monk with eyes for another brother, played by Tobey Maguire. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), another bad-hair blond, farts a lot in a flatulent-fat-folks comedy. Best of all is Alpa Chino's (Brandon T. Jackson) playaz-and-hos commercial for Booty Sweat soft drink and Bust-a-Nut candy bars.

The main joke is that, aside from Alpa, every one of these guys is trying to restart his career by making a Rambo-Platoon-Deer Hunter-Apocalypse Now-style 'Nam war adventure. On location in Quang Tri province, Tugg and Lazarus, who plays the movie as well as the movie within the movie in blackface and an Afro wig with a Deep South accent instead of his "natural" Australian twang, get into an argument over how to shoot their big scene. The tiff runs on so long that the scheduled massive napalm drop happens off-camera, setting back production and sending both the director (Steve Coogan) and the studio honcho back home (Tom Cruise, also unrecognizable in bald wig and prosthetic arm and chest hair) into gyrations. That's when the movie's adviser, besotted 'Nam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), suggests teaching these actors a lesson by dropping them in the "real deep shit" alone, with only a few hidden cameras in the trees. So they chopper into the bush. Turns out they're unknowingly trespassing on the territory of a hill country drug lord.

All this is moderately amusing for the first thirty minutes or so. The always-annoying Coogan makes a welcome exit from the movie by stepping on a land mine. Stiller, allegedly inspired to make Tropic Thunder after getting dissed by Oliver Stone in the casting of Platoon, reserves the most pathetic scenes for himself — killing a panda and wearing its skin, being forced by the tribal folks to re-enact Simple Jack, etc. Even when he gets captured, Tugg still thinks it's a movie. Large chunks of time are devoted to shots of Black in his underwear, lashed to a tree. With his blond hair he looks just like Truman Capote. Downey's Lazarus character eventually morphs into the Lawrence of Arabia-era Peter O'Toole.

Big windup, scant delivery, despite the barrage of bitterly satiric dialogue and sight gags. Ultimately it comes down to exactly the same type of heroic finale they're supposed to be parodying in the first place. You bettah off renting Rescue Dawn.

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