Hollywood is a very self-congratulatory institution, a trait quite irritating to a large population of filmgoers. However, every once in a while a film comes along like “Tropic Thunder” – a self-deprecating satire of Hollywood fakery – that helps to ease the resentment. After months of hype surrounding Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as an actor playing a black man and Tom Cruise’s supposed revaluation through a scene-stealing role, Ben Stiller’s fourth directorial effort has hit theaters. It scores mostly as a satirical action/comedy but its demand for laughs over its presumptive elements takes away from what could be one of the best comedies of all time.
The film stars Stiller as the ludicrously named Tugg Speedman, an action star realizing his shortcomings after a slew of inane action bombs and an attempt at critical glory as a special needs farm-boy in the ridiculous fake Oscar bait drama “Special Jack.” Along with goofy comedy star/heroin addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), five-time Oscar winner/Aussie Kirk Lazarus (Downey), rapper/energy drink mogul Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and rising star Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), Speedman is the starrer of the hottest new Vietnam war flick “Tropic Thunder” as directed by the inexperienced theatre director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).
The filming goes awry after the prima donna behavior of its celebrity cast angers heavyweight producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who gives the naïve director an ultimatum in the form of a key grip’s fist. Cockburn takes advise from the war hero/author of the adapted screenplay’s novel Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) to take the temperamentally uninspired group of actors into the hazardous jungles of Vietnam for a wake-up call. Unfortunately, all does not go according to plan and the pampered talent find themselves in a real-life warzone.
Much of the film is satirical in nature, especially focusing on the stereotypes of Hollywood. It certainly succeeds in this genre as opposed to the extremely successful rubbish that is churned out every year by the masters of blather Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (the cinematic villains behind “Date Movie,” “Epic Movie,” and the upcoming “Disaster Movie.”). However, there are many more silly moments than that expected in a high-brow comedy of which “Tropic Thunder” could have been. For instance, each scene featuring Tom Cruise is thoroughly unnecessary.
This was supposed to be Cruise’s attempt at regaining the audience he had lost after his 2005-2007 antics. While it’s somewhat refreshing to see the actor out of his element, one can’t help but realize that the biggest fan of this performance is Cruise himself. His portrayal insists upon the audience that he’s a funny guy and that we should laugh as he gratuitously curses at a purposelessly cast Matthew McConaughey (as Speedman’s Tivo-obsessed agent) or when he does a wholly unfunny dance sequence during the closing credits. Cruise steals the scenes – not from his costars – but from the audience.
Nevertheless, Stiller’s film is a genuinely funny flick. Stiller himself is the weakest performer although he does offer a few of the more memorable scenes even though he’s still doing his tired “serious” shtick.
The reason to watch “Tropic Thunder” – as is the same reason for any movie that is released this year featuring this actor – is Robert Downey Jr. He’s the scene-stealer (in the good way) that makes the film rewatchable. Downey’s portrayal as the controversial critics’ darling taking on the role of the stereotypical black soldier is just about the funniest (and highly quotable) character seen in theaters in years. His portrayal avoids disrespect but instead proves how ridiculously far some actors will go. In a year of unorthodox Oscar buzz (For example: Heath Ledger in his visionary role as the Joker), it is ironic that Downey is playing a role that could lead to much deserved recognition in this year’s awards season.
The other supporting characters are also very enjoyable and in many cases outright hilarious. Jack Black has had his veritable mix of hits (“Be Kind Rewind”) and misses (“Nacho Libre”) but in “Tropic Thunder” he wondrously sidesplitting. Also fun to watch is Brandon T. Jackson – a great performer with an unfortunately underwritten role. Jay Baruchel has been making his way into big screen exposure for the past few years in minor roles in various comedies. Baruchel plays the perfect straight man and proves his untapped comedic talent that is sure to bring him greater roles.
One should also look for the surprising performances by Nick Nolte and Danny McBride. Nolte has become somewhat unpopular since his arrest a few years back and his crazed portrayal of Four Leaf is reminiscent of the great comedy work he was once known for. McBride is utterly fantastic – delivering seemingly improvised lines with expert timing that certainly earn his title as the “new Will Ferrell.”
Besides the ridiculous casting of Cruise, the only other problem with “Tropic Thunder” is its unjustifiably unmemorable storyline. The plot becomes secondary to the terrific performances of the talent – a cinematic injury that removes a lot of credibility to Stiller’s writing abilities (although he seems to be a good choice as director). His scriptwriting partner on this film is actor/writer Justin Theroux who is tapped to write the “Iron Man” sequel, and hopefully Theroux has the chops to fulfill something a little more distinguished.
“Tropic Thunder” is generally noteworthy because of its showcasing of illustrious comedic talent. Stiller has found a universally acceptable niche in the director’s chair while Downey may find himself with three box office winners this summer (after “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk”) – an achievement that is altogether well-deserved. A lot of the comedy works in this film even though the unforgivable factors are a bit too overpowering. Even so, “Tropic Thunder” is a rare movie-going experience and should be towards the top of your must-see list.