Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Is there anyone in Hollywood more self-deprecating than Ben Stiller? I can’t think of one film that he’s been in where his character isn’t humiliated early and often. We all remember the most obvious example of this in There’s Something about Mary, where Stiller gets caught in a very compromising position – or at least part of him anyway. At times I’ve found his brand of humor a little grating, but you have to give him credit where credit is due, Stiller has no problem looking bad or being the butt end of a joke. He’s the antithesis of Mel Gibson. This kind of makes it ironic that his new film Tropic Thunder seems to be offending more people than a drunken Gibson tirade. Since I haven’t laughed so much since The Birdcage, I guess that makes me insensitive to the needs of people without the same self-deprecating sense of humor that Stiller has.
Stiller, who co-wrote and directed the film, stars as Tugg Speedman (even that name is funny), the lead actor in a big budget war movie who along with his co-stars Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) find themselves involved in an actual combat situation after being dropped in the middle of the jungle by their crazed director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). The man who wrote the war novel that their film is based on is named Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and he thinks that the spoiled actors need to be thrust into some “real shit” in order to perform. Tayback, along with the special effects guy set up some booby traps for the actors, but what they don’t know is that there are real bad guys in the jungle and the cast will have to find their own way out.
Although the plot of Tropic Thunder contains some clever twists the humor of the situation is derived from the cast and their response to what’s happening around them. Speedman may be the most successful of the cast when it comes to commercial success but it’s Lazarus who has garnered the critical praise along with five Oscars. Portnoy has made his money primarily by playing multiple characters (ala Eddie Murphy) in a movie called The Fatties where he farts a lot. Speedman’s latest film Simple Jack in which he played a mentally retarded country boy wasn’t the success he thought it would be, maybe because as Lazarus tells him, “You went total retard man, you want to win the Oscar you have to go half retard.” Oh, this might be one of the scenes that offended people.
As they march through the jungle, Speedman truly believes that they are still in the movie that they signed up for and even though things seem quite real, it’s all part of the genius of the director. Lazarus however, even though he’s a method actor who never gets out of character, “until the DVD is released” thinks that something is has gone awry. At the same time, Portnoy, a cocaine addict, is going through withdrawal and needs to get back to his trailer. Luckily for him the bad guys who are targeting them are drug smugglers. As the three actors argue about what’s actually going on and what route to take through the jungle, Speedman’s agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) pleads with the films greedy producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) for help.
The humor in Tropic Thunder is both clever and over the top, often at the same time. Downey Jr. actually plays a black character in the war movie, his Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor with spooky blue eyes, is such a method actor that he has treatments to make his skin dark before filming. To say that Downey steals the film would be an understatement, as he plays his character as a gung-ho southern black soldier, who talks like a pretentious Australian actor would think a guy like this might sound. Hiring a white guy to play a black character is for certain politically incorrect and Downey takes this idea to its logical absurd extreme. When Lazarus in a deep southern drawl says that he “used to be a saucier down in San Anton” it gets some of the biggest laughs in the film because we, along with Downey, get what he’s doing. When we see clips of Speedman as Simple Jack, stuttering and stammering his way through a sentence, it’s clear that Stiller is taking the characters mental handicap to an absurd extreme as well. Stiller understands that Hollywood is often clueless when it comes to the reality of any situation.
Stiller, along with his co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan (not to be confused with Ethan) Cohen, have made a big Hollywood movie that mocks big Hollywood movies. It takes no prisoners, if you will, and those that are offended are quite simply missing the point. The dialogue is clever enough for three movies and the entire cast is at the top of their game. I haven’t even talked about Cruise, who as the aptly named Les Grossman is nearly unrecognizable beneath huge glasses and patches of unkempt body hair. As Cruise curses mercilessly at his subordinates and dances as only a white Jewish Hollywood producer would know how, it’s clear that he’s dealt with enough of these guys to know how to, and enjoy, skewering them. It’s also the perfect come back vehicle for him, as he’s not afraid to have some fun with his own recent image of looking stupid.
Tropic Thunder proves that when Hollywood successfully pokes fun at itself there really isn’t anything funnier or more enjoyable to watch.