Tropic Thunder (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Tropic Thunder Poster

Just when it was starting to look like the concept of a "funny comedy" has gone out of vogue, along comes Pineapple Express and its cinematic cousin, Tropic Thunder. The latter film, which has emerged from the warped mind of Ben Stiller, is a little nastier than the former, but no less hilarious. With a cast that many movies would die for, Tropic Thunder takes no prisoners. It treks into taboo areas and emerges mostly unscathed. The film isn't perfect - it's a little too long and some scenes aren't as funny as the filmmakers think they are - but in an environment where things like The Love Guru and Step Brothers pass for worthwhile entertainment, Tropic Thunder puts a lot of comedy pretenders to shame.

This is movie that tells the story of the making of a movie based on a fake true story about a Vietnam War hero. Three of Hollywood's biggest stars are involved. There's Speedman (Ben Stiller), a one-time box office champion whose better days as an action star are behind him. Heroin-addicted Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is best known for starring in The Fatties, a movie which, based on the evidence, appears to be 90 minutes of flatulence jokes. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an Oscar-decorated method actor who goes to extremes to play roles, such as receiving "pigment alteration" in order to take on the part of an African American soldier. They are joined by Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). The director, Damien (Steve Coogan), decides that a little realism couldn't hurt the production, so he drops his stars in the middle of a jungle and decides to make the movie guerilla style. But some drug dealers become involved and suddenly the actors are under fire for real and not sure what's fake and what isn't.

Tropic Thunder is, for the most part, one long rip of movie-making. If there's an aspect of the Hollywood system and how things get made that isn't put through the ringer, I'm not sure what it is. Stiller knows the ins-and-outs of the process, and isn't afraid to shine a spotlight on them. Sure, he's tweaked things to make them funny, but one gets the sense that there's more than a kernel of truth in what he's presenting: megalomaniacal producers, self-important directors, actors convinced that they are bigger than the movie, agents who obsess over meaningless details, and so on.

The most controversial aspect of Tropic Thunder is the decision to put Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. To call this a dangerous move is to understate matters. But Stiller has intelligence to go along with his balls. First, he chooses one of the best working actors to take on the part and Downey sells it. Second, he puts a real African American (Jackson) opposite Downey and lets the latter tear into the former. The point of giving Downey black skin is to illustrate how shallow the Hollywood system is: some producers would rather have a "name" actor in a totally unsuitable role than take a risk on someone more appropriate but less well-known. It's also a knock on those actors who believe that they're so good they can play any role. Downey portrays Lazarus as a man so totally in love with himself and his ability that he can't see how his work could be deemed offensive, even when Chino points out the obvious.

Of the three leads, Ben Stiller and Jack Black are fine, but neither is in the same league as Downey when it comes to getting laughs. The film's real acting intrigue lies in the list of supporting performers. At one point, I think it was intended to be a secret that Tom Cruise is in the film, but the cat's out of the bag. The fat, balding, profanity-spewing mogul is the almost unrecognizable Top Gun star, proving that he's not above moving beyond his comfort zone. Cruise doesn't do many comedies and he's never played a part quite like this one before. Other big actors taking small parts are Matthew McConaughey and Nick Nolte. And, as one might expect from someone like Stiller, who knows and is liked by nearly everyone in Hollywood, there are a large number of cameos.

There are similarities between Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express beyond the fact that both films get a lot of mileage out of side-splitting R-rated humor. (It should be noted that Tropic Thunder is a rare rude, crude comedy that is not in any way associated with Judd Apatow or any of his close associates.) Both films weave overblown action scenes into their less-than-serious material, and neither film shrinks from gore. However, where Pineapple Express derives laughs from a mangled ear, Tropic Thunder takes things a step further.

The film is so high energy and over-the-top that it's likely to exhaust many audience members long before the closing credits roll. That's often a problem with comedies that run longer than 90 minutes. And, while McConaughey and Cruise work in their parts, Nick Nolte doesn't seem to fit. His character is intended to be gruff, but Nolte plays the part a little too seriously. The actor is apt at making action comedies - his 48 Hours is among the best - but he's a square peg in a round hole here.

Tropic Thunder opens brilliantly, with a fake soda commercial and a few real-seeming trailers that will have half the audience unsure whether the movie has begun. The actual movie isn't on par with this prologue material, but it doesn't have to be. It's good enough to get laughs and the flaws aren't bigger than the stuff that works. Stiller shows no fear and throws in copious pop culture references that range from Star Trek (a clip from the episode "Arena") to Close Encounters (a mound of heroin that looks like Devil's Tower) to 'N Sync. Tropic Thunder understands movies, understands the system in which they are created and, most of all, knows what it takes to make an audience roar with laughter.

Tropic Thunder (United States, 2008)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1