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Tropic Thunder
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hearts Of Dorkness"
4 stars

Ever since Oliver Stone famously made his actors take part in mock military training and field exercises as part of the rehearsal process for “Platoon,” virtually every war film produced since then has had their performers go through some form of fantasy boot camp or another. The idea, in theory, is that by subjecting the actors to a simulation of the conditions that they might have actually experienced out in the field of battle, those experiences and their reactions would help better inform their performances and give them an extra layer of authenticity. In reality, such things don’t really do that much for the actors except to help inform their panel patter when they appear on talk shows to talk about the hard and rigorous training that they had to undergo in order to fully prepare for the film. The reason for this is simple--if you are in the thick of actual combat, you wake up every day facing the very real possibility that you might actually die but unless a stunt or a special effects explosion goes horribly wrong, there is very little chance that an actor is going to face any real danger while out trudging in their faux-fields. The new comedy “Tropic Thunder” merrily skewers this particularly pompous moviemaking tradition and it does it so successfully that I suspect that it will be a long time before another actor in a war epic has the nerve to appear before Dave or Conan to talk about how dangerous and realistic their made-in-Hollywood boot camp exercises were.

The film chronicles the production of “Tropic Thunder,” a hugely expensive Vietnam war epic in the grand tradition of such classics of the genre as “Air America,” “The Hanoi Hilton” and “Purple Hearts.” Unfortunately, in trying to create the most marketable package possible, the studio has inadvertently managed to cast the most incongruous collections of actors imaginable for such a project. The top dog in the cast is Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), an action star who was once the highest-paid actor in the world but whose career has begun to slip in recent years--his big franchise has become less popular and his blatant attempt to score an Oscar by playing a mentally handicapped farmhand in a saccharine drama entitled “Simple Jack” was a critical and commercial disaster. Then there is Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a wacky comedian with a massive drug problem whose work seems to combine the worst aspect of the late-period Eddie Murphy and the late Chris Farley (his big thing is a comedy franchise called “The Fatties” in which he plays every member of an extremely large and extremely flatulent family) and who sees this film as a perfect opportunity to show his chops as a dramatic actor. Then there is Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a “Scarface” obsessed rapper (say his name out loud a couple of times) who has presumably been cast as a way of attracting the young urban audience and who sees the film as a way of expanding both his artistic horizons and a commercial empire that already includes energy drinks, candy bars and clothing. However, the real wild card of the bunch is Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a hugely talented Australian actor (five Oscars and counting) whose intense Method stylings cause him to go to extreme lengths to get into the roles that he is portraying and then, as he puts it, “I don’t drop character until I do the DVD commentary.” In theory, the idea of casting him sounds like the one sane move in the entire film, except for one little problem--the part that he wants to play calls for an African-American actor. However, Kirk looks upon this as his greatest challenge to date and in order to help him play the part properly, he undergoes a radical new surgical process that dyes his skin the proper color and spends every moment talking in the way that he imagines how a black man from the south might sound.

Right from the start, the inability of newbie British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) to control his spoiled bunch of actors causes the film to spiral out of control and when their misbehavior completely ruins a hugely expensive and complex special effects sequence, the studio is about ready to shut down the production and scrap the entire thing. At this point, the grizzled John “Four-Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), the hook-handed Vietnam vet who wrote the book that the film is based on and who is serving as a technical advisor for the project, comes up to Cockburn with an ingenious idea. Instead of shooting the film in a typical (and typically expensive) manner, they should string a bunch of video cameras into a remote part of the jungle, drop the actors out there without any warning or without any of their normal amenities or entourages and fire off some carefully rigged explosions here and there--the theory being that their actions and reactions will feel far more real and result in a much better film. Realizing that if he doesn’t do something, he will be banished to the Island of Misfit Directors (a void where Elaine May and Michael Cimino are still doing time), Cockburn agrees and, without warning or explanation, flies his troublesome foursome, along with Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a newcomer who knows he is too far down in the pecking order to display any diva tendencies, out into the middle of the jungle and presents them with nothing more than a few words of encouragement and a map telling them where to go. Alas, there are two slight flaws to the plan. The first comes when Cockburn is suddenly and spectacularly put out of commission. The second comes when it transpires that the actors have been put down in an area of the jungle controlled by a fierce 12-year-old drug lord (Brandon Soo Hoo) who is convinced that these interlopers are from a rival gang and who sends his men out to take care of them with real weapons with real bullets.

When you get right down to it, “Tropic Thunder” is pretty much a one-joke film--an extension of those old Three Stooges shorts where the guys don’t realize that what they think is a guy in a gorilla outfit really is a genuine gorilla--mixed in with a bunch of shots at the blockheaded blockbuster mentality of contemporary corporate-minded Hollywood, a place where a top actor can behave as badly as he wants to and where those past their prime run the risk of becoming less important and valuable to the studios than their massive insurance policies. In theory, it sounds like a potentially unpalatable mix of dumb-dumb comedy and backstage in-jokes but one of the impressive things about the film is how it takes such a theoretically dodgy concept and makes it work despite all of the potential hiccups. Once the screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen sets up the conceit of actors not realizing that the gunfire, grenades and gore surrounding them are real, it chooses not to simply repeat that joke ad nauseum and instead spins off into any number of new and unexpected comedic territories--Tugg discovers that his work as Simple Jack was heralded in at least one remote corner of the world, Jeff begins crumbling as the result of his sudden and unexpected drug withdrawal, Kirk’s refusal to drop character even after it is obvious that there is no movie going on begins to rub everyone the wrong way, especially Alpa, who resents the fact that the only good role for a black character in the screenplay went to a white actor and who is not consoled at all by Kirk’s Jeffersonian words of wisdom. The behind-the-scenes Hollywood stuff is also pretty inspired too in the way that it blends broad humor that will appeal to all (such as the profanities spewing forth from the gruesome studio head and Matthew McConaughey as an agent who will literally go to the ends of the earth to make sure that his client gets the TiVo specified in his contract) with equally hilarious bits of inside baseball humor that allows some of the jokes to work on two different levels. (One of the reasons that the fake trailers that open the film--do not show up late--work so well is because they are so note-specific to the kinds of previews they are goofing on that they each appear under the appropriate studio banner.) This is the kind of weird and smart comedy that Ben Stiller originally made his name with via the brilliant-but-doomed TV sketch show “The Ben Stiller Show” and it is a relief to finally seem him return to his comedic roots instead doing yet another dumb romantic comedy in which he is the brunt of any number of sexual humiliations.

And like “The Ben Stiller Show,” “Tropic Thunder” owes a lot of its success to the fact that it is a true ensemble piece in which everyone plays off of each other nicely throughout while still getting their own individual moments to shine. Stiller has played a lot of clueless dopes in the past, most painfully in “Zoolander,” but what makes his work here as Tugg so inspired is that he plays the character in such a way so that he manages to come across as a bonehead without going so far over the edge as to become implausible even by Hollywood standards. As the increasingly desperate Jeff, who explains in colorful detail exactly what he is willing to do in exchange for a fix, Jack Black has perhaps the vehicle for his peculiar brand of manic energy since “School of Rock.” In smaller roles, Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan do good jobs of nailing the clichés of the John Milius-like madman writer and the neurotic director, relative newcomers Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel more than hold their own against their better-known co-stars and Matthew McConaughey is frequently hilarious as an agent who somehow manages to be both completely loyal to his client and completely craven at the same time. And I would once again like to mention for the second week in a row (following last week’s “Pineapple Express”) that Danny McBride, who I found to be almost willfully unfunny earlier this summer in “The Foot Fist Way,” is pretty hilarious here as the special-effects technician--maybe he was just having a bad few weeks when he wrote and appeared in that earlier film.

However, it turns out that the two performances in the film that received the most advanced hype are actually worth of the pre-release acclaim. (Since one of them is technically supposed to be a surprise, even though I suspect that anyone with even a passing interest in the film already knows about it, the paragraph after this one should probably fall under the heading of a Spoiler Warning! The first is Robert Downey Jr’s astonishing high-wire act as the ultra-dedicated Kirk Lazarus. Face it, there are few things out there with the power to kill laughter these days than the sight of a white actor in blackface (if you doubt me, please ask C. Thomas Howell or Ted Danson about how well it went for them) but the beauty of what Downey does here is that the joke is not just that it is a white actor trying to make himself look and sound like his idea of a black person. Instead, the joke is that he is playing an actor who becomes so wrapped up in the idea of getting within the skin of a character that he has absolutely no realization of how divorced from reality he has become by doing so. The trick to pulling off a performance like this is that the actor doing it has to be completely committed to the idea from beginning to end without hesitating for a moment out of fear of offending people--if the pose is dropped for a second so that they can remind us that yeah, this is kind of offensive, then the joke is lost and it actually does become offensive. Downey never drops character for a second and the result is one of the boldest and funniest performances of his entire career--having kicked off the summer of 2008 with his unexpectedly strong work in “Iron Man,” he closes off the summer with an equally impressive turn that solidifies his position as one of the most exciting American actors working today.

The other standout performance comes from, of all people, a heavily made-up Tom Cruise as the incredibly profane and tasteless studio chief in charge of “Tropic Thunder.” Cruise is an excellent actor but he has never really dipped his toes into comedic waters and on the occasions when he has, such as “Risky Business” and “Jerry Maguire,” he was playing characters who were more laid-back and relaxed than crazed and manic. Here, he goes for broke with a wild and gleefully over-the-top portrayal of the ultimate Hollywood sleaze bucket and amazingly, he demonstrates a genuine and heretofore inspected flair for broad comedy that is undeniably welcome and winning. Having undergone a lot of negative publicity over the last couple of years that has painted him in some circles as a stiff and self-serious weirdo without any discernible sense of humor, he clearly took on this part as a way of rehabilitating his image with the public and the industry and while doing it was a gamble, it turns out to be a gamble that pays off beautifully and it could well reignite his career by showing that he can do comedy after all.

Because it is a comedy that is a little more ambitious than most and because it is frequently very funny to boot, some people have gone so far to say that “Tropic Thunder” is some kind of bold, daring and transgressive comedic masterpiece--the same kind of reaction that “Borat” received in certain circles a couple of years. This is the kind of dangerous over-hype that can lead to some audience letdowns and I want to warn you that, much like “Borat,” it doesn’t completely live up to such buzz--the film does become a little uneven in the middle and if I had to compare them, I would probably have to say that “Pineapple Express” is the more consistently amusing film of the two. However, I would say that “Tropic Thunder” does have the bigger laughs--with one scene, in which Kirk logically and hilariously explains to Tugg exactly why his portrayal of Simple Jack did not merit an expected Oscar nomination, already destined for all-time classic status--and like “Pineapple Express,” it shows that there is a place in the multiplexes for comedy that doesn’t aim exclusively at 12-year-old cretins. It is a blast from start to finish and after watching it, I suspect that you will never be able to watch “Platoon” again without struggling to contain a giggle or two.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17273&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/13/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

3/24/18 morris campbell funny satire 4 stars
7/16/12 Jeff Wilder Amusing in spots. But doesn't satirize as much as copy. 3 stars
5/05/12 fartvenugen boring poopfest 2 stars
6/26/11 Ionicera Better first half than second half but overall watchable 4 stars
1/21/11 Chris F complete and utter trash 1 stars
9/03/09 CTT Smart comedy from Stiller 4 stars
8/11/09 RLan Very funny! Good performances from Cruise, McConaughey and Nolte. 4 stars
5/24/09 MP Bartley Sometimes it gets obsessed with its own cleverness, but otherwise a real hoot. 4 stars
3/02/09 KingNeutron Dear God it sucked SO BAD - why do I bother with Stiller movies anymore? 1 stars
2/08/09 Dianne Just did not get it. Waited for something funny. Husband & I sat thru it and wondered why. 2 stars
1/15/09 Matt It looked like a good idea. Unfortunately, so did the Titanic. 1 stars
12/23/08 Meredith Childish 1 stars
12/17/08 Jon G Funny stuff 4 stars
12/06/08 Jared Robb Very well written and acted, great comedy! 5 stars
11/20/08 matt slightly overhyped, but has its moments 4 stars
9/15/08 Ravenwest Best ! 5 stars
9/13/08 Annie G Even though I haven’t seen the movies being parodied, I found this fun, fun, fun! 4 stars
9/04/08 Rachel Best part = fake trailers at the beginning. Not the slightest bit offensive. 4 stars
9/01/08 damalc pretty funny but i agree with protesters, retard bit was offensive 3 stars
8/27/08 Quigley Despite highly entertaining performances from Downey Jr. and Cruise, don't even bother 2 stars
8/26/08 Random Aloha from Kaua'i. I never stopped laughing. I'll see it again to find friends as extras! 5 stars
8/21/08 Razzo Rizzo Agree with Gonsalves, Stiller and Black disappointing, Downey mumbles 3 stars
8/17/08 fan so much fun and right on. all were excellent. 5 stars
8/17/08 Samantha Pruitt pretty funny! RDJ was really great in it, i loved Jay Baruchel the best 4 stars
8/16/08 Margeaux Downey stole the movie! 4 stars
8/16/08 Darkstar Hot Damn! Funny as hell. 5 stars
8/16/08 George Barksdale This was very good, Ben Stiller seems to always make good movies 5 stars
8/16/08 John Elrod More truth to this than the average viewer realizes. Cruise's producer is Evil Personified. 5 stars
8/16/08 ron not enough space to say how many attributes this artful masterpiece has 5 stars
8/15/08 ahnold Piece of shit - unless you like all Ben Stiller movies. Not enough space to criticize fully 1 stars
8/15/08 Terry Suprised on how good it was. Boring beginning but it gets better every minute after! 5 stars
8/15/08 Kishuta Awesome! This is how parody movies should be. 5 stars
8/15/08 crltn fantabulous 5 stars
8/15/08 bruno priani it was better than a blowjob, and thats a lot 5 stars
8/14/08 jcjs hilariously clever, acting, scenes, pyrothecnics, constant humor, fun, ya leave refreshed 5 stars
8/13/08 Nick Digilio The Funniest Movie of the Year....EASILY 5 stars
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  13-Aug-2008 (R)
  DVD: 18-Nov-2008


  DVD: 18-Nov-2008

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