A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 106 mins.

Tugg Speedman: Ben Stiller / Jeff Portnoy: Jack Black / Kirk Lazarus: Robert Downey Jr. / Four Leaf Tayback: Nick Nolte / Damien Cockburn: Steve Coogan / Kevin Sandusky: Jay Baruchel / Cody: Danny McBride / Alpa Chino:  Brandon T. Jackson / Rob Slolom: Bill Hader

Directed by Ben Stiller / Written by Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen and Stiller

Ben Stiller’s TROPIC THUNDER – his fourth directorial effort and first since 2001’s underrated ZOOLANDER – is a fierce and raucous comedy and spirited satire done with a fist clenched ferocity and a gnarly, never-look-back gusto.  If there is one word that I would aptly use to describe it then it would be...untamed.  

The greatest comedies of Mel Brooks, for example, were never afraid to do whatever was necessary to garner a laugh both big and small.  Stiller has learned from his comedic predecessors, because in TROPIC THUNDER he and his crew ham things up to unapologetic lewdness and political incorrectness.  More crucially, though, is the fact that this film is hilariously smart, a close-up, pitch perfect lampooning of the maddening clichés and ego-driven powerhouse that is the film industry.  This film more than successfully achieves two goals: (first) it’s riotously funny and (second) it makes you take a step back and say, “This material is so spot on in its truthfulness of the film industry as a whole.” 

This film had me in stitches within the first few minutes, where we are dealt up a series of faux trailers that are as side-splittingly inspired as similar fake ones that populated the GRINDHOUSE double feature from last year.  First, we have a zany commercial for a special energy drink called “Booty Juice” done like a hip hop video featuring rapper Alpa Chino (yes, like the SCARFACE actor) which is followed by a series of movie trailers, the first of which is for SCORCHER VI: GLOBAL MELTDOWN, which stars Tugg Speedman.  It looks curiously a lot like SCORCHER one through six.  The second phony promo is for “THE FATTIES: FART II”, another sequel for what appears to be a lame brained, intellectually stunted NUTTY PROFESSOR clone.  

Finally, and in the film’s single most hilarious moment, is the trailer for the new erotic drama called SATAN’S ALLEY (named after – yup – the same Broadway production John Travolta vied for STAYING ALIVE) that is…about two closeted homosexuals…18th Century priests to be precise.  It stars five time Oscar winning actor Kirk Lazarus, who spends much of the trailer exchanging loving glances at both the altar and with fellow co-star – and winner of the “Best Kiss” MTV Movie Award – Tobey Maguire, played by the real actor, the first of many celeb cameos in TROPIC THUNDER that daringly showcases what truly good sports they are at being self-deprecating. 

These trailers only occupy the first few moments of TROPIC THUNDER, but they show off the film’s sheer comedic ambition, not to mention how it manages to throw caution into the wind and go for broke.  This is Stiller’s big send up and parody of everything narcissistic, egomaniacal, financially motivated, and artistically "retarded" (more on that later) about the industry he calls home.  It aims its mocking crosshairs up at a variety of targets, including abnormally focused method actors, prima donna action stars that try to go legit, money grubbing Hollywood producers that care more about dollar signs than the finished product, and, more or less, big studio pomposity and excess.  

Consider the movie being filmed within this movie, which looks like it is trying to be APOCALYPSE NOW, THE DEER HUNTER, PLATOON, and just about every major Vietnam War film ever rolled into one.  The film is based on a best selling memoir of a “real soldier” named Four Leaf Tayback (the very creepy Nick Nolte) and is directed by a rookie, Damien Cockburn (the delightfully demented Steve Coogan) and the production is beset by setbacks, most notably that it has fallen a month behind schedule…five days into shooting (the media dub it “the most expensive war film never made”).    

Yet, Cockburn's worst problem is his cast.  First, we have the most successful action icon of all-time and star of SCORCHER one through six, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) that is trying to get some serious critical acclaim for once in his career with making this war film.  Well, he actually tried to achieve this earlier with a rather failed attempt at playing a mentally challenged farmer in SIMPLE JACK (a few scenes from it that are shown make RADIO and I AM SAM look like Hitchcock).  Perhaps even more difficult is the presence of Jeff Portney (Jack Black), the star of those THE FATTIES movies, which rely heavily on flatulence gags.  Maybe he’s not cut out for a serious, big budget “Nam film…or maybe he’s on a serious withdrawal from his addiction to hard drugs?  

Then there is Alpa Chino himself (Brandon T. Jackson), the black hip hopster that is trying to get serious street cred by making the transition from gangsta to actor.  This is made challenging by the presence or Mr. Academy Award, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), who is the most insanely devoted method actor in the history of the movies.  Just how ‘insanely’ devoted?  Well, this Australian actor, for some incredulous reason, is revered as being so gifted that producers thought he would be perfect to play Sgt. Osiris…the platoon’s African American grunt.  Because Lazarus is so steadfastly focused on delivering the most realistic portrait of a black Vietnam soldier, he undergoes an invasive surgery that alters his skin pigmentation to make him look like Richard Roundtree.  And…most significantly (like most method actors), Lazarus always – and I mean always – stays in character (“I don’t break character until I record the DVD commentary,” he boasts at one point). 

Now, it’s with Downey’s character where the real admirable nerve of the film comes to the forefront.  In most instances, a white actor in black face is not funny, but offensive.  Indeed, Downey’s Lazarus attempts to duplicate every single clichéd and stereotypical vocal utterance, bit of body language, and slang that he feels personifies black people, which is superficially offensive.  However, Stiller’s ace in the hole to deflect criticism of using black face for cheap effect is the fact that he has another black character, Alpa Chino, serve as a counterpoint to the head-shaking self-indulgence of Lazurus’ ego.  The Aussie thinks he is so talented that he can inhabit the mind of any man, but he is such a ruthless and textbook artistic snob that he can’t see how his portrayal could offend anyone.  TROPIC THUNDER also uses the Lazarus character to take a stab at the oftentimes-indefensible way Hollywood would rather use a bankable celebrity to play a part that any good actor (of appropriate culture) could have and should have played.  Stiller’s indictment of this annoying Hollywood strategy is ruthless and scathing, but is true to heart (consider, for example, how many Brits were in ALL THE KING’S MEN playing Americans from the south…see what I mean?). 

Anyhoo’, the film within the film has hit rock bottom, and this point is reminded to both Cockburn and the audience by the film’s producer, the relentlessly potty-mouthed, beer-bellied, unshaven, balding, booze n’ whores n’ rap lovin’ Less Grossman, played by…Tom Cruise, in what happens to be his most refreshingly vanity free performance of his career.  He fires up Cockburn by telling him to get his production back on schedule…or else.  Four Leaf (in a moment that is a sly spoof of a famous scene introducing Robert Shaw in JAWS) tells Cockburn and company that the only way to get all of the film’s pampered and whiney actors in tow is to drop them in the middle of the jungle and shoot the rest of the film guerrilla style, lean and mean.  The actors and crew (one of whom is the very funny Danny McBride, the FX wizard) are dumped in the jungle with only a map and a brief description of action and dialogue.  Unbeknownst to all involved, some local drug dealers get involved and see the actors as real American enemies and targets, which Speedman ignorantly sees as part of the act.  Others don’t share his view, especially when one key member of the crew is blown up via a landmine (in the film single best executed – and most shocking – sight gag).  Within no time Speedman and his entourage are not sure what’s real and what’s not. 

I think that TROPIC THUNDER works best when it hones in on satire, and its condemnation of the box office motivated Hollywood system wickedly and cheerfully pulls no punches.  Yes, things are played at times for broad, sensationalistic laughs, but throughout the film’s bawdy and scatological vibe exists a real veracity: the film’s portrayal of creatively-neutered and financially devoted producers, agents, and actors is realistic in many ways, not to mention the type of pretentious and loathingly self-indulgent extremes that directors and actors choose.  

Look at, for example, Speedman’s thoughts on playing a mental “retard” (as he calls it) as a way to bait himself into the Academy’s hearts.  Lazarus rather hysterically (and truthfully) points out to him that the great actors that have won Oscars “never go full retard” (see FORREST GUMP, BEING THERE, RAIN MAN, etc).  Apparently, a coalition of more that 22 disability groups (including the Special Olympics and the Arc of the United States) severely objected to the term “retard” being used in the film and fought to have it boycotted.  Ironically, these special interest groups reveal their own petty ignorance with their stance.  TROPIC THUNDER never uses handicapped people as fodder for dumb jokes; instead, it is making a pointed commentary on how performers and the movies shamelessly use the mentally challenged as a catalyst to achieve critical accolades.  There is a serious message here in the film’s apparent “offensive” content:  One must simply look past its facade, which the interest groups are not interested in doing.

Also, TROPIC THUNDER is just too damn jovial and impulsively goofy to be taken too seriously.  The film’s laugh ratio is consistent and hearty, not to mention that some of the performances are eerily evocative as much as they are giggle-inducing: Downey’s work in particular is one of the film’s greatest achievements, and this – alongside his terrific performance in this summer’s IRON MAN – can officially typify this former Hollywood badboy and troublemaker as 2008’s comeback kid.  The other actors as well are a hoot: Stiller can sift through material like this in his sleep (he has one knee-slapping moment near the end when he realizes why trying to save what he thinks is a war orphan is a huge mistake), and Jack Black has one memorable moment where he begs for someone to tie him to a tree so he will not succumb to his heroin urges.  And…yes…Tom Cruise just may in fact steal this show as the paunchy and f-bomb loving executive producer.  He has one sly scene that involves him dancing that acts as one bizarre echo of his very famous scene in RICKY BUSINESS.  No one in the industry should label Cruise as being a self-aggrandizingly obtuse Scientologist nutjob after seeing him prance around in one of 2008’s most off-the-wall and forcefully unruly comic performances. 

This late summer has been unusually good for comedies:  Last week saw the comedic ingenuity of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and now we have the almost equally funny TROPIC THUNDER.  Stiller’s film does have a few more weaknesses than the previous mentioned stoner flick, namely when the subversively satiric edge of it is stunted by some needlessly stomach churning sight gags (one involving a decapitated head goes a bit too far), not to mention that Nolte seems to play his part with such stern intimidation and gravity that he appears to forget that he’s in a comedy.  The film is also oddly hypocritical near the final act (the whole film chastises how big budget films are all about bullets, blood, gore, and explosions and mayhem…and TROPIC THUNDER paradoxically does much of the same in its final sequences).  Nevertheless, Stiller has crafted a ridiculously crazy, affectionately brazen, mercilessly ruthless and take-no-prisoners Hollywood satire that is full-on retarded…oops…sorry...I mean…amusing.

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