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Audiences may not realize it, but they've been starved of actual comedy writing in their Hollywood entertainment. Besides Woody Allen, the Coen brothers and the occasionally effective work of the Judd Apatow mafia, comedy "writing" has been left to nothing more but the following: "INT. SUBURBAN HOUSE-DAY-Will Ferrell does something funny here involving a stapler, tightey whiteys, and a gerbil. What it will be; who can say?" That is, most contemporary comedies are just strings of improvised sketches driven by the star persona. Funny as they may be in fits and starts, they do not linger on in the memory because there is no controlling idea or intelligence pulling it all together. Certainly, they're not based on storytelling and feature nothing resembling human characters. Once upon a time, there were actual scripts written featuring well drawn characters which were designed to be funny on paper; scripts by people like Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, Preston Sturges, Blake Edwards, Terry Southern, Paddy Chayefsky and John Hughes. Most of those guys are no longer with us, or no longer writing on a regular basis. This is why Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder is such a pleasurable surprise. With a cast featuring accomplished improvisers like Stiller, Black, and Downey, Jr. it's no surprise that there is a good deal of improvisation going on. What is surprising is how well drawn the characters are within the ad-libbing and how effectively told the story remains. The script by Stiller along with David Lynch regular Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen is not tossed out the window but embraced for its stinging satire of Hollywood and the Vietnam War genre it built.
The intersection of the Vietnam war with Hollywood began in the late '70s with films like The Boys in Company C, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now but became a full fledged genre by the '80s with Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket. Like all genres, these films created their own conventions and expectations: some drugs, lots of rock 'n roll (preferably the Stones), and violent in-your-face gore. All wrapped up in a tone of stoned nihilism. Like all genres, these conventions quickly became Hollywood cliches. Tropic Thunder focuses its satire on this Hollywoodization of war, as it depicts the production of a Vietnam genre film that's less Platoon than Platoon Leader with Michael Dudikoff.
Tropic Thunder is the story of a group of pampered and pretentious Hollywood actors, all putting on their best "war face" in order to create a serious drama out of war veteran "Four Leaf" Tayback's (Nick Nolte) supposedly true to life account of his experiences in the jungle. These include a heroin addicted star of lowest common denominator comedies (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (sound it out to get the Scarface culture joke), fading action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) and, best of all, an Academy Award winning Australian method actor, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who undergoes skin pigmentation surgery in order to play a black soldier.
When their frazzled director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is pressured by studio head Les Grossman (Thomas Mapother) to straighten out the troubled production, he's inspired by "Four Leaf" to drop the whole bottled water and latte studio safe filmmaking and toss the pansies out in the middle of the jungle for a real wargame designed to elicit real fear. He intends to film it all with hidden digital video cameras and capture the true horrors of war. But, like the Three Amigos, these actors discover that they're in something more dangerous than an acting exercise as they begin to trade blank gunfire with real bullets aimed at them from ruthless drug running locals.
Of all the comedy subgenres, satire is the most difficult to pull off. Too often the target is too wide and the humor lacks bite. Sometimes, the satire is so deadpan that it's hard to separate the irony from the real thing. Just look at how the band U2 started the '90s by satirizing the pomp and circumstance of rock stars and by mid-decade "became that which they beheld" with the album and tour for POP. Tropic Thunder avoids these pitfalls by clearly playing the story for comedy and by centering the satire on a specific target: the pretensions and empty values of Hollywood. To this end, the writers fashioned very specific types for their characters and it's not hard to imagine the real life model for each of them. The movie within the movie itself is a perfectly designed piece of Hollywood war movie garbage. In fact, with its crass gore, over the top heroics, and wasteful spectacle, it resembles Coming Home in a Body Bag, the fictional movie Clarence Worley admired so much in True Romance.
The cast is perfect and, of course, what could've been a terrible idea is turned into comedy gold by the incredible performance by Downey, Jr. who inhabits the black Kirk Lazarus so completely that it's actually somewhat disappointing to watch the makeup come off at the end. I felt like a kid who just found out that there is no Santa Claus. The only unfortunate thing about his performance is how it overshadows strong contributions by Steve Coogan, Jack Black, Jay Barauchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Matthew McConaghey, Nick Nolte, and Stiller himself. One peformance that isn't easily overshadowed however is that of Thomas Mapother. I have to say it was a bit creepy seeing this familiar face transformed into a foul mouthed, middle aged ogre.
There was some controversy around the time of release which reveals one of the pitfalls of satire. In the context of the story, Tugg Speedman attempts to broaden his range by taking on the role of a learning disabled character in a awful looking piece of Oscar bait called "Simple Jack". He wears buck teeth and overalls and as Kirk tells him in the jungle, Speedman went "full retard". Some audiences found Stiller's performance to be offensive and claimed he was mocking those with disabilities. The problem here is that people were missing the real target which was not the disabled but rather self-absorbed actors like Tugg Speedman who look for opportunities to play roles which would garner them good reviews and the honor of awards. Offense is the risk that all good satire must take in order to illuminate truth through humor.
The Tropic Thunder 2 Disc Director's Cut is a pleasingly large but mixed bag of goodies. As an unrated "Director's Cut" you get more movie for your DVD dollar. This is not a completely good thing. Thirteen extra minutes have been allowed to infiltrate the film, which was a bit on the long side in the first place. Personally, I would've rather watched these 13 minutes as a deleted scenes feature. As is the case with most films, deleted scenes are cut from the film for good reasons. In this case, the scenes themselves are not bad and sometimes very good, but Stiller keeps saying himself on the DVD commentaries that they were cut because they were either redundant or simply slowed the pace of the film. Actually, they are both redundant and slow the pace of the movie which makes this "Director's Cut" the less effective overall film when compared to the theatrical release. Perhaps they should've put that version on one of the discs as well.
Besides the longer cut, however, the discs include more than three hours of extras. The first disc has two commentaries, one with Stiller, co-writer Theroux, cinematographer John Toll, producer Stuart Cornfeld, production designer Jeff Mann, and editor Greg Hayden. This one focuses on the technical difficulties on making such a large scale character comedy and gives a lot of attention on how fantastic Toll's cinematography is even when it's trying to look bad as with some of the lame fake trailers. The second commentary features Stiller as a kind of moderator with Jack Black and Robert Downey. This one is almost as fun as the movie itself as it provides another very entertaining two hours with an inspired Downey, Jr. doing the whole thing "in-character" as Kirk Lazarus, shifting from his "native" Australian into "Sgt. Lincoln Osiris" and then back throughout. Downey Jr takes Lazarus' assertion that you "don't drop character 'til the DVD commentary" a step further and doesn't drop character until the end credits are rolling.
Disc Two is packed with the standard featurettes covering the making of the movie in detail from the genesis of the story to shooting the opening battle scene and the climatic explosion. There are profiles of the main cast, a viral video shot for the MTV Movie Awards, a handful of other deleted and extended scenes deemed unworthy for the director's cut. These are all worth watching, but cannot hold a candle to the best bonus feature which is the mockumentary "Rain of Madness" and the associated "Dispatches from the Edge of Madness," in which faux documentarian Jan Jurgen covers the making of the film up to the mysterious disappearance of its director and lead actors. It's a hilarious parody of the famous Hearts of Darkness doc about the making of Apocalypse Now and is a must-watch. All in all it's a great set of DVDs. I only wish that the theatrical cut was included as well.
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