Rated: R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.
Release Date: 2008-08-15
Starring: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
Official Website: http://www.tropicthunder.com/
“Tropic Thunder”, the new comedic vehicle by Ben Stiller and his pals, kicks off with a assault on the audience so unexpected and so enormously funny that it takes you totally by surprise and disarms you completely. Unfortunately, though “Tropic Thunder” is pretty good at several other points, this sequence ends up being the funniest in the entire movie.
It’s the story of three Hollywood actors from very different genres, who join forces to shoot a Vietnam-war melodrama. Ben stiller is Tugg Speedman, an action star whose career has suffered after his recent choices of roles, namely that of a developmentally disabled character he played hoping to win an Oscar in a movie called “Simple Jack.” Roberto Downey Jr., on the other hand, plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian five-time Oscar-winner, who goes after roles for the challenge of becoming wholly new and different people foreign to his own reality; in the film-within-a-film also called “Tropic Thunder,” he plays an African-American soldier, a role for which Lazarus/Downey Jr. has had his skin dyed and his hair curled. And Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a gross-out comedy star whose biggest success has been playing multiple roles as each member of a flatulent, obese family, and who’s joined the cast of the weighty Vietnam picture because he’d like to be taken seriously as an artist. Brandon T. Jackson also appears as a hip-hop star called Alpa Chino (read the name out loud if you don’t see the gag), and Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky, a rookie actor on his first production, surrounded by big stars. Finally, the outstanding cast is rounded out by the British actor/comedian Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn, the film’s director; Nick Nolte as Four Leaf Tayback, the Vietnam vet whose war memoirs were the basis for the screenplay; Matthew McConaughey as Rick Peck, Speedman’s aggressive agent; and Tom Cruise in a prosthetic belly and bald cap, as the villainous Les Grossman, the head of the studio.
The actors are generally excellent, above all Downey Jr. The exception to a strong cast for me was Ben Stiller, a comedic star I personally find to be very limited in the versatility of his characters and improvisations (notice how similar most or all of his film characters are; they tend to be hostile, overbearing, extremely dumb, or all three). The same goes for Tom Cruise, whose character turns out to be a one-note joke; the novelty of seeing Tom Cruise in disguise and playing such an unpleasant character was a gag that got old fast, and a role to which Cruise didn’t bring anything more.
The movie does have its grand comic moments, and some even hilarious. When it weakens is when the story becomes too dense; separate subplots play out onscreen, but Stiller’s unskilled hand as director treats all of them with equal importance, and the audience is distracted by narratives that should have just been extremely minor subplots. What’s more, enormous stretches of time pass in the film’s over-long running time when we don’t see or hear from one character or another, creating a very uneven story during the middle part of the movie.
Nevertheless, “Tropic Thunder” redeems itself and entertains the audience enormously during its stronger parts, and it even has its truly brilliant moments.
One separate note: The subject of a Caucasian actor playing an African-American man and verging on blackface buffoonery has turned out not to provoke the negative reaction you would have imagined, and I think rightly so, because it’s an issue of satire and what that character as a Hollywood star is willing to do. However, the element that has drawn criticism and even a boycott after all is the melodramatic, Oscar-bait role Tugg Speedman (Stiller) had played in his previous outing, “Simple Jack” about a developmentally disabled young man. Stiller is certainly less deft as an actor than Downey Jr., and plays that fictional part with less seriousness – because even a comedic character has to take himself totally seriously, even if the audience laughs at him. And maybe it’s because of the broad, exaggerated absurdity of Stiller’s performance in the part, but several groups dedicated to the rights and dignity of people with disabilities have organized a boycott of “Tropic Thunder.” I respect their motives wholeheartedly, but I don’t personally agree with them; the character is nothing more than a skewering of Hollywood actors and these roles they play, whether for the challenge of embodying a character they couldn’t possibly fully understand, or to raise awareness of the disadvantages faced by different groups in society, or as in the case of Tugg Speedman in “Simple Jack,” to show off their dramatic chops and try to win an Oscar. It’s not disrespectful of people with disabilities, in my opinion, but just Hollywood satire, and I’m confident that was Stiller’s intention as writer, director and actor.