Well, I finally got around to seeing Tropic Thunder, and I was not disappointed. Sadly the hype machine took the juice out of many of the best scenes by putting them on heavy rotation, but the movie is a lot of fun and a good way to bounce back from the gut-wrenching thrills of The Dark Knight, which it neatly knocked out of the #1 spot, at least for now.
By now even the isolated Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon knows that Tropic Thunder is about what happens when a bunch of actors making a big-budget Vietnam War movie get lost in the jungle and have to fight actual bad guys. It is directed by and stars Ben Stiller, who when he’s not being hit by whale penises and bumbling his way through formulaic romantic comedies, actually makes some funny movies. The Cable Guy was hilarious, and flopped because people didn’t want to see Jim Carrey’s obnoxious persona from “In Living Colour” turn into what it would be in reality- horrifying. I haven’t seen Zoolander, but if it’s anything like his underrated “Ben Stiller Show,” where he mastered the art of mocking Hollywood movies, I’ll be renting it. For example, check out his trailer for Die Hard 12: Die Hungry, which is actually better than the fake trailer he introduces his character with in this new movie.
After seeing Meet the Fockers on cable a billion times, it’s hard to want to see Stiller on the big screen again and actually pay for it. But let me assure you, this new movie may not be better than Pineapple Express, but it’s as least as good as Get Smart with three Steve Carells would be. The movie begins with three fake trailers and a commercial that introduce us to the big-name stars who collide in this spoof of the typical bloated Hollywood epic turned money pit. There’s Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, Roll Bounce) the young rapper of the minute who sells his own energy drink called Booty Sweat; Tugg Speedman the action hero of the “Scorcher” series, now in the double digits, whom Stiller plays using his familar action-hero parody schtick; Jeff Portnoy, played by Jack Black as a poke at Eddie Murphy, the great comic who’s stooped to playing a family of fat farty fucks; and of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the method actor who undergoes a “contoversial medical procedure” when he finds out his character was supposed to be black. I won’t spoil the trailers for you, because they are some of the best laughs of the film.
From there the movie dumps us on the set, which seems modeled on the production of Apocalypse Now as depicted in the documentary Hearts of Darkness. Steve Coogan (A Cock and Bull Story, 24 Hour Party People, Hamlet 2) plays director Damien Cockburn, who can’t wrangle his 3 bad boy actors and is risking losing the production. After an argument that messes up an expensive explosion scene, he gets chewed out on a video conference by hirsute, intense producer Les Grossman, played by Tom Cruise in a fat suit. I’m sure there will be comparisons to the last time Cruise tried acting in Magnolia, but I found this the most distracting part of the film. I’m sure he took the role to draw attention away from his psychotic outings on youtube and show him as a self-effacing guy who doesn’t think he can fly or cure you with B-12, but it doesn’t really ring true, and the joke wears thin very quickly, especially when they try to play it up by having him dance whenever a joke deflates.
Thankfully the rest of the cast picks up the slack. Director Cockburn (hurrrr) is at the end of his rope when the author of the book his movie is based on, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) takes him aside with a proposition- drag these prima donnas out to the jungle, and have Cody the one-eared pyrotechnician (Danny McBride, Pineapple Express, Hot Rod) play some pranks on them so they get a taste for what it’s like to shit your pants in the jungle. It’s too bad Nolte couldn’t smack some acting chops into Cruise, because he’s pitch perfect here. It’s not much of a stretch for him to play the Scary Vietnam Vet, a role he mastered way back in Who’ll Stop the Rain, but when things fall apart, we see nuances to the character that amp up the comedic energy exponentially. He really adds something to every scene he’s in.
Once they’re in the jungle everything goes pear-shaped, and they have to try to survive. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show, refusing to break character “until the DVD commentary,” and trying to grab the reins from “the Tugger,” who expectedly refuses to believe that it’s not still being filmed, and that everything’s okay. Stiller playing someone stupider than Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin’s love child isn’t anything new, but thankfully the other characters play off him well, and also reduce his screen time. Jack Black manages to come up with a new character to play, as fart-boy Portnoy starts getting withdrawal symptoms. It was quite refreshing to see JB slip into a gruff fat GI character and then become a trembling addict, without doing any of his trademark wild-eyed manic persona. The big surprise was from Brandon T. Jackson as the rapper- he plays the straight man most of the time, but fits right in among the 3 big stars and doesn’t get lost, unlike Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Almost Famous) who’s good, but sort of melds into the background scenery.
They bumble their way into a heroin processing plant, and have to fight their way out- with blanks, mind you. We’re never expected to believe it’s realistic, and when it gets over the top ridiculous, Stiller wisely makes it just absurd enough that we’re laughing and don’t care. There’s a great gag on the action movie cliche of the little kid who befriends the hero that takes a long time to pay off, but when it does, I hope you don’t have to pee. You’re likely to do it in your 128oz. Medium soft drink cup. There’s a side plot with Tugg Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) that seems poised to sink the picture with unnecessary drama, and that gets torpedoed with a great gag too. The screenplay, penned by Stiller, Justin Theroux (The Baxter, Mulholland Dr.) and Etan Cohen– not Ethan Cohen– manages to avoid being episodic and the expected cliches. It also lets the actors infuse their roles with enough character that we never think they’re just delivering jokes.
There’s an apparent controversy over the use of the word “retard” in this movie. While it is certainly a hurtful word to call someone with a learning or mental disability, here it serves another purpose- skewering the Hollywood Oscar train for anyone who portrays a mentally challenged person on screen. The joke here is that Tugg Speedman tried to be taken seriously by starring in a movie called Simple Jack that parodies these Hollywood feelgood movies and fails, but it keeps coming back to haunt him. If people want to protest, why not picket the next movie where Sean Penn gets the part instead of Chris Burke (Corky from “Life Goes On”). According to his IMDb resume he can use some work right about now. And even he calls himself retarded!
People said I could never become an actor because I’m retarded. It goes to show you that anyone can make their dreams a reality… unless they’re brain dead.
I worked with “Special Young Adults” in high school as part of community service– no, not for carrying a bushel of knives to school, either– and I think Stiller did a great job mocking the Hollywood cliche, and was not making the joke at the expense of the mentally handicapped.
Anyway enough about this controversy. Tropic Thunder may be a bit overhyped but it’s a refreshing big-budget comedy where Hollywood pokes fun at their own. Of course it falls flat when they try to mock the money men- after all, a bunch of Les Grossmans probably financed this. I hope Cruise sends a royalty check to Saul Rubinek, who played the hyperactive asshole producer to perfection in True Romance, and was so funny he didn’t need to dance to get laughs. If Cruise ever puts down the cock and the e-meter, we might see him act again- if he gets away from his handlers.