The newest trend in comedies lately is metatext. Movies about movie culture, or at least movies that acknowledge the debts owed to other movies, have been big in the wake of Scream, Bowfinger, and Shaun of the Dead. Tropic Thunder isn’t a comedy about war. Tropic Thunder is a comedy about war movies, and from the opening shot of helicopters thumping over the lush greenery of the Vietnamese jungle, Tropic Thunder has callbacks to every Vietnam war movie ever made, from Full Metal Jacket (actor Jay Baruchel is a dead finger for Matthew “Pvt. Joker” Modine) to Apocalypse Now.
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action star leaning on an ever-increasing number of sequels to keep himself in the limelight. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a method actor with five Oscars to his name, known for throwing himself wholeheartedly into any role. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a big-name comedy actor famous for fat suits and fart jokes. Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson) is a rapper and entrepreneur trying to make the move into acting to expand his revenue stream. Kevin Sandusky (Baruchel) is a young actor just getting his big break. These five actors have been brought together from all walks of life to star in the most expensive blockbuster war film ever made, Tropic Thunder.
Unfortunately, when you have that many gigantic egos, you need an experienced, strong director to handle them, and Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is not that. That’s why he’s got to do something crazy and drop his prima donna actors into the jungles of Vietnam, away from all manner of assistants and TiVos. From there on out, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and our fake soldiers find themselves having to fight their way back to civilization like real soldiers.
This is the movie I’ve been waiting for all summer. I’ve been interested from the first trailer. I love a good war movie, I love a good dumb action movie, and I especially love a spoof movie. This is all three of those in one.
The cast is just incredible. Ben Stiller was basically born to play arrogant and dumb. Robert Downey Jr. is the strongest performer in the movie, playing the ultra-dedicated (to the point of undergoing controversial surgery to darken his skin) method actor Lazarus, who is completely unable to break character. Counterbalancing Lazarus is rapper/businessman turned actor Alpa Chino, whose character constantly takes the piss out of Lazarus’s stereotypical mannerisms. Jack Black delivers some of the best lines in the film, and avoids falling into most of the usual manic performance quirks, while Jay Baruchel makes a great straight man at the mercy to all these bloated egos.
The one performance that sticks with me now, after having seen the movie, is Tom Cruise’s fearless performance as Hollywood power-broker Les Grossman. Not only is Cruise unrecognizable behind his padded suit, bald cap, and chest hair, it’s also his funniest performance ever. If you see this movie for one reason, make it Tom Cruise. Seriously, he’s that good, and this role will hopefully go a long way in erasing the memory of couch-jumping from our collective consciousness.
Ben Stiller must have been incredibly busy on the set of this film, as not only did he co-write the script (with Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux), he also directed and (obviously) starred. Much like his previous triple threat film, Zoolander, Tropic Thunder is uproariously funny in spite of (or possibly because of) the controversies the film has sparked.
Disability rights groups are up in arms over the film’s use of various terms and slang terms for intellectual disabilities. The film is satirizing Hollywood’s love affair with actors playing characters with intellectual disabilities (I Am Sam, Rainman, Forrest Gump, Being There, The Grapes of Wrath… go back as far as you’d like) and how playing those sorts of roles instantly gets you award buzz. It is treated in the film as a Hollywood cliché (and it is, let’s not kid ourselves).
Other groups complain about the film’s use of blackface for Robert Downey Jr.’s character. Ignoring the fact that this issue is handled excellently by Brandon T. Jackson’s character, the purpose for Kurt Lazarus to turn himself black to play an African American is to satirize the other way in which actors get award buzz: by putting on a lot of radical makeup or severely altering their appearance (Marlon Brando, Charlize Theron, Hilary Swank) as well as Hollywood’s older tradition of taking white actors and casting them outside of their race for film roles. It goes out of its way to mock ultra-serious method actors and institutional Hollywood racism. Robert Downey Jr. and Brandon T. Jackson play it perfectly.
Both groups are complaining about a lot of nothing. What is being mocked by this film isn’t what needs to be protested. The overblown sense of big-star self-importance is what is shredded by this very funny ensemble comedy. If these groups want something to complain about, they should start by complaining every time Hollywood casts a black actor in a stereotypical role, or when Hollywood options yet another story about an intellectually disabled person who triumphs over adversity just to provide Oscar bait for some award-hungry actor. The movie merely points out how foolish and silly Hollywood is about the whole process.
Silly is a great way to describe this film. One thing it is not is brainless. It’s a smart kind of goofy, and the consistent layers of jokes (obvious jokes, Hollywood insider jokes, and war movie spoofs) should keep the audience laughing consistently, regardless of their knowledge of Hollywood or Vietnam movies. It’s probably the funniest comedy of the summer thus far, narrowly edging out Pineapple Express. It also happens to be a dead-on parody of ‘Nam films (right down to the soundtrack) and a very good action film in its own right.