In 2001 Ben Stiller sent up the fashion industry in a movie called Zoolander about moronic models. In his new film, Tropic Thunder, which he co-wrote, directs and stars in, he goes for something a little closer to home—his fellow SAG members.
Tropic Thunder, with its cigar smoking children drug lords, liberal use of the word “retard” and Robert Downy Jr’s blackface performance may be the most politically incorrect—and funniest—movie of the summer.
It’s the story of “the most expensive war movie NEVER made” featuring three pampered Hollywood superstars. There’s action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) the kind of dim bulb who describes the movies he stars in as “effects-driven-event-films”; Oscar magnet Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a method actor (possibly based on Russell Crowe) who spouts nonsense like “I don’t read the script! The script reads me!” and comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug addled star best known for flatulence jokes. Two newcomers round out the fictional movie’s cast: multi-platinum hip-hop-star-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).
The five are stranded in a Southeast Asian jungle by a director (Steve Coogan) determined to get realistic performances from his spoiled cast. Things get a little too realistic when the actors are targeted by a drug cartel that holds one of them for ransom. To get out of the jungle alive they have to come together and become more like the soldiers they are portraying.
For once you’ll want to arrive at the theatre in time to check out the trailers. Director Stiller introduces each character with a mock trailer from their most recent movie. These fake promos establish the movie’s silly tone starting with Stiller’s over-the-top Stallone-esque Scorcher clip, followed by the Eddie Murphyish The Fatties, where Jack Black plays multiple characters and a surprise cameo in the Downey Jr trailer promises that Tropic Thunder will take no prisoners in its ridicule of Tinsel Town.
After the trailers Stiller jumps right into the action. He opens the main story with a set piece from the fictional film so violently crazy it makes Jerry Bruckheimer look subtle. Blending in every cliché from every Chuck Norris war movie ever made Stiller shows how his pampered cast has gotten the film “one month behind schedule after only five days of shooting.” As the fictional story begins to echo the real life trials and tribulations of the legendary Apocalypse Now shoot, the lampooning of Hollywood broadens to include a grocery list of show business excesses. The movie business is so ripe for parody it’s a wonder it doesn’t happen more often.
Stiller aims his jaundiced eye at everyone in front of and behind the camera. From actors, portrayed as needy, coddled masses of insecurity to managers more obsessed with a contract rider that promises their client TiVo than the safety of the actor, no one is safe.
Stiller and Black (who brings notes of John Belushi and Chris Farley to the role) hand in good, solidly entertaining comedic performances, but it is Robert Downey Jr who steals the show. As Kirk Lazarus, an extreme method actor who changed his skin color to play an African American soldier, he creates a portrait of an artiste who is just an empty vessel waiting to be filled by the people he plays. It’s as effective a comment on earnest actors who take themselves a bit too seriously as it is hilarious. Highlights of Downey’s performance include a completely offensive, but screamingly funny breakdown of Speedman’s role in a movie called Simple Jack.
Tropic Thunder is an effective parody of Hollywood made by insiders—including Tom Cruise in a cameo that proves he may have a sense of humor after all—who understand how truly silly and confounding celebrity culture has become.