Tropic Thunder is a full frontal, comedy assault. It doesn’t just present jokes on the screen and then wait for you to laugh, it shoves comedy dynamite up your nose and then giggles while it lights the fuse. Ben Stiller has created a wicked satirical attack on Hollywood, one that pulls no punches and takes a weirdly dark journey deep into the heart of blockbuster filmmaking. Not everyone makes it out alive.
In fact, the occasional bit of death is pretty funny when done in this context. I guess I should explain that context. The film takes place in the jungles of Vietnam, where a hapless director has assembled a cast of spoiled actors in an attempt to make a fabulously expensive war picture. Things are going badly, the studio is riding his ass, and in a last ditch attempt to make his movie work before the whole thing implodes, he tries something desperate. He yanks his actors off the set and drops them off alone in the middle of the jungle with a copy of the script. He tells them there are cameras everywhere, gives them a map, and abandons them to survive the jungle, reach their objective, and in the process make the movie. It’s extreme guerilla style.
Things don’t exactly go to plan. Soon his spoiled group of actors find themselves embroiled in a real conflict with terrorist drug dealers, with hope fading fast. Surviving is only half the problem, convincing them the war they’re in is real, is the bigger challenge.
The movie is made by an all-star cast delivering… ok I’m going to say it and get torched… Oscar caliber performances. Alright, maybe not from Stiller. Stiller is playing the same character he always plays: Ben Stiller. But it works in this context, because the film needs an anchor on which to hang the rest of its insanity. Robert Downey Jr. is the ringleader of that madness, playing an Oscar-winning Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus. He’s so overly dedicated to his craft that he doesn’t know where his performances end and he begins. For the war picture we’re watching him make, he’s dyed his skin to play a black man, and what’s more he’s actually become a black man. Or rather the stereotypes associated with a black man. What’s baffling is that there’s nothing offensive about it, merely unbelievably convincing and painfully funny. RDJ runs away with every scene he’s in, and I mean it when I say he deserves an Oscar for what he’s done here. His performance is nearly on par with what Heath Ledger did as the Joker, though since it’s a comedy he’ll never get the kind of credit he deserves for it. There’s never a moment in the film where he’s recognizable as Robert Downey Jr., not even when he takes off his mildly racist prosthetics. It’s a great performance, an epic comedy performance, instantly iconic. Your friends will be running around shouting out Robert Downey Jr. quotes for the next ten years. Here’s my current favorite: “You never go full retard.” Trust me, it’s hilarious in context.
It’s not just Robert Downey stealing scenes though. Jack Black shows up and gives one of the best comedic performances of his career as a fat, jelly bean addicted actor who spends half the movie strapped to the back of a water buffalo whining for his mama. Judd Apatow regular Jay Baruchel has his coming out party in the jungle, as the only member of the bunch with any actual survival skills, and perhaps their only hope for escaping with extremities intact. Meanwhile that Tom Cruise cameo you’ve been hearing about, totally delivers. It’s a bit more than a cameo really and it’s maybe the best thing he’s done in nearly a decade. He’s shockingly hilarious and so good and so outside his comfort zone that it may take less discerning audiences a few minutes before they even figure out it’s him. Cruise isn’t the only great cameo either, the film is filled with huge Hollywood stars playing characters so totally against type it’s almost jarring when they show up on screen.
Tropic Thunder is at its best when it’s at its weirdest. When Kirk Lazarus is riffing on the Oscar process while getting lost in the jungle, or during the out of control intros for each character which at first you might mistake for previews, or when nearly naked Jack Black pulls a gun out of his crotch and goes batshit crazy on a pre-teen Vietcong in the psychotic pursuit of “jellybeans”. The movie works when it’s going completely nuts, it revels in going over the edge, and if only the entire thing could be spent going mad.
Unfortunately there are lulls. They happen in those spaces when the film is trying to get from point A to point B or from point C to point D. It’s a minor complaint really, you won’t remember them after you walk out of the theater. You’ll be too busy talking about what the hell was Tobey Maguire doing in this movie, or quoting some insanely inappropriate line from Lazarus. Still, the lulls exist and the film seems to exist only in two modes. Completely insane and out of control or flat out dull. The problem is likely Stiller’s script, which bumbles around at times as if it’s not sure what it’s trying to do. In key scenes the script smooths out and his actors run away with everything, making it easy to overlook a somewhat clunky story.
Because of gutsy, crazy performances from Downey, Black, Baruchel, Cruise and the rest, Tropic Thunder is a comedy phenomenon in the waiting. It’s the next Austin Powers or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s the hardcore, horribly offensive, must see comedy of the summer. Be there if you want to know what the heck your friends are talking about.
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