Tropic Thunder

starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr.
written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen & directed by Ben Stiller
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.

Three major actors, an action star, a comedian, and an award-winner, threaten the production of a big-budget Vietnam War movie with their antics. Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), fed up with them and egged on by technical advisor Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), drops his troublesome stars in the middle of the jungle under the pretext that he will be filming the movie “guerrilla-style.” In reality, the actors find themselves confronting a host of real jungle dangers, including the heavily-armed members of a drug operation, but mistakenly believe that it’s all just part of the show.

The characters are inspired, introduced by a series of fake ads and previews just before the movie proper begins. First is rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (say it out loud). Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is something of an entrepreneur in the midst of trying to launch two new products: an energy drink called Booty Sweat and Bust-a-Nut candy bars. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who has made his name with the blockbuster Scorcher franchise. But, after a lackluster 6th installment, his star is waning, and his title performance as a retarded man in huge flop Simple Jack didn’t help. Jeff Portnoy (Black) is a portly comedian known for his fart-fueled The Fatties movies (a very thinly-veiled sneer at Eddie Murphy’s The Klumps). Portnoy is addicted to heroin, but his supply on location is severely limited. Finally, there is the serious Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), a multiple-Oscar winner who takes his roles so seriously that he won’t break character “until after the DVD commentary.” Lazarus has turned his skin black in order to take on the role of the unit’s African American sergeant.

Downey Jr., who is obviously having a fantastic year, does great comedic work. I would say his character steals the show, and turns in a great performance to boot. The ultimate punchline would be to see him receive some major award nominations. The hilarity is bolstered by support from Coogan and Nolte, along with a number of major and minor celebrity cameos. These are as surprising as they are funny, and it would definitely be considered spoiler material to reveal any of them.

Tropic Thunder dodges quite a few comedy buzz-kill landmines, but not all of them. I suppose the nature of its subject makes it impossible to be funny all of the time. Some elements, like Black’s one-note drug-withdrawal shtick, wear out their welcome a bit (surely they could have come up with a few other things to do with his character?). There are one or two jokes like this which are recycled or drawn-out too much. In the midst of the pyrotechnics-fueled climax, the movie stumbles dangerously close to becoming what it is mocking (a flaw that is as deadly to good parody as a lack of humor), but it recovers before the end.

I have not yet seen Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary which chronicles the insanity surrounding the making of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but I can imagine that it plays out a little bit like this. In a recent interview (and I paraphrase), Justin Theroux was asked, “So, is it now okay to make fun of the Vietnam War?” To which he replied, “It’s okay to make fun of actors pretending to be in the Vietnam War.” And that’s what this is. Tropic Thunder is top-notch parody, especially at a time when unfunny, no-talent hacks are permitted to assault the screen with trashy pseudo-parody like Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans. Part of what keeps it (mostly) funny throughout is the broad, layered nature of that parody. On one level, Tropic Thunder is mocking the sub-genre of classic Vietnam War films that first started appearing about 30 years ago (The Deer Hunter, Platoon, etc.). On another, it is mocking big-name stars, both those we take seriously and those we don’t. It is a satire of movie-making, and of the movies themselves. There is something for just about everyone to laugh at here, and even a little bit of room to laugh at ourselves for our part in it all.

~ by Jared on August 13, 2008.

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