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Tropic Thunder A Giddy Take on Pretentious Actors

Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller
Written by Stiller, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen
Paramount/Dreamworks, 2008

Stiller the director has made a few misunderstood films that gained an audience later in life, chief among that lot is The Cable Guy, which I think gets better every time I watch it.  He had a similar reaction to his first feature, Reality Bites.  Even Zoolander, perhaps his best-received comedy, made only $45 million back in 2001, even less than The Cable Guy made.  But you’d have a hard time not finding a fan of at least one of those movies today.

The Hollywood satire is hard to pull off, much less make into a hit, although I think Stiller went the correct route here by making it R-rated and stuffing it with hilarious actors.  The more well-known Hollywood skewers, like Robert Altman’s The Player, still weren’t exactly box office gold even though they got accolades.  The inside joke of a particular industry fails to connect with most people just due to the fact that most people don’t know what the joke is.  This is why the most successful form of satire usually takes form in the parody, which has been watered down by all the “Movie” movies in the past few years.  But why Tropic Thunder will have a good chance of connecting is because much of our culture now is observing celebrities behaving badly or strangely or being outright primadonnas.

Tropic Thunder focuses on a movie of the same name based on a book written by one “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), a grizzled Vietnam vet.  It stars “the action guy” Tugg Speedman (Stiller), who is having a career setback after his Scorcher films have started numbering “VI” and a bad attempt at playing a mentally challenged farmboy in Simple Jack.  Co-starring with Speedman is the heroin-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), who makes flatulent comedy hits, and the Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who has won five Academy Awards and gets deeply into character…so deeply in fact that he undergoes surgery in order to become a black man for the film.  Rounding out the cast is rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who endorses a drink called “Booty Sweat,” and the character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).  The director is first-timer Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who is having a hard time wrangling all of the egos as the movie starts to go way over budget, punctuated by an accidental napalm blast set off by the explosives guy Cody (Danny McBride, funny as always).

So, the plug is threatened to be pulled by studio exec Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, bald and hairy everywhere else).  Upon the suggestion of “Four Leaf,” director Cockburn decides in order to get some reality out of the situation, he’s going to have to send his actors into the actual jungle, away from their cell phones and assistants and agents (Matthew McConaughey plays Speedman’s agent Rick Peck).  Once in the jungle, they are immediately beseiged by druglords.  Most of the crew know that the situation is real, but Speedman thinks it really is part of the show and gets deeply into character, and at one point he is separated from the rest of his fellow actors, who end up having to save him.

Meanwhile, Grossman and his colleague Rob Slolom (Bill Hader) have sinister plans for the situation once they know what’s going on.

Of course, like many comedies, not everything is going to hit, but for the most part this has enough hilarious moments to keep your interest.  Chief among the laugh-getters is Downey, who has a lot of funny lines in the attempt to be black, but also just from facial expressions.  Every time he’s on screen it works: I loved his take on an actor’s responsibility in taking on mentally-challenged characters in an extremely funny conversation with Speedman.  Right after that you have to give props to McBride, who speaks in Southern-fried similes and metaphors in his incompetent attempts to blow things up.  Cruise’s studio exec is also funny; at first I thought the advance word on this performance was a bit overblown but it progressively gets funnier as he gets nastier.

The other main actors are all serviceable in their roles: Stiller, Black, Jackson, and Baruchel do well, but get overshadowed by the outrageous other characters.  This isn’t a knock, since a movie full of balls-to-the-wall over-the-top characters would be a circus in which to keep up.  It is a testament to them not to try to keep up and just let the others shine, much like Christian Bale did in The Dark Knight.  The finale of this movie is almost all pure hilarity, a joy to watch.

I have to think, also, on future viewings this will just be considered a classic over time.  It has more instant gratification than his previous efforts, so he will likely be rewarded with his biggest hit as director as well.


Comment from kw
Time: August 14, 2008, 3:37 pm

awesome! I can’t wait. hope to see this tonight.

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