Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman
Jack Black as Jeff ‘Fats’ Portnoy
Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus
Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino
Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky
Danny McBride as Cody
Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn
Bill Hader as Rob Slolom
Nick Nolte as “Four-Leaf” Tayback
Brandon Soo Hoo as Tran
Reggie Lee as Byong
Tom Cruise as Less Grossman
Matthew McConaughey as Peck
Directed by Ben Stiller
The sum is infinitely greater than the parts in this hilarious ensemble comedy that proves Ben Stiller to be a film director capable of so much more than we’ve seen from him in the past.
Plagued by problems and infighting amongst its big name stars, the Vietnam war movie “Tropic Thunder” is about to shut down production so in desperation, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) takes his five squabbling actors into the jungle and leaves them there, where they get into trouble with the local Flaming Dragons drug cartel who believe them to be real soldiers. When the film’s star, former action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), is captured by the Flaming Dragons, the other four actors must put aside their issues and work together to try and save him.
Over 15 years ago, “The Ben Stiller Show” hit the airwaves with genuinely funny and biting spoofs of various television shows and movies, but in the time since then, that Ben Stiller went away, softened and sculpted by Hollywood into a generic and family-safe everyman who could easily be slotted into a variety of high concept comedies. As much as the thought of any actor getting behind the camera is a daunting one, Stiller’s last movie as actor/director, 2001’s “Zoolander” couldn’t possibly prepare anyone for a movie that uses the template of movies “Apocalypse Now” and “Rambo” to take a revealing bite out of Hollywood and the problems that come with making movies.
Taking the “movie within a movie” concept to a new level, “Tropic Thunder” opens with fake commercials and trailers introducing the key characters before cutting to a scene of Vietnam War carnage with excessive blood and gore played up for laughs. When the cameras stop rolling, we’re thrust into a production clearly in trouble, having gone way over budget under the auspices of inexperienced and mostly incompetent British director (Steve Coogan). To try and save the movie, he takes the advice of “Four-Leaf” Teaback (Nick Nolte), the soldier who wrote the novel on which the movie is based, and throws his five leads into the middle of the jungle to toughen them up and get better performances out of them.
It’s ironic that Stiller’s first movie as a director since America went to war won’t be seen as political for its war themes as it will for Stiller’s decision to bite the Hollywood hand that’s fed him with the type of satire that harks back to the days before he toned his act down. The results aren’t as much a series of vignettes making fun of Hollywood stereotypes as a well-developed and structured story with some of the best comedy writing in a movie not directed by Judd Apatow. Sure, some of the big laughs come from the characters’ over-the-top behavior and sometimes obvious scatological humor, but it’s the way that Stiller and his team molds these gags into an intelligent comedy that works on many layers what ultimately ends up being so pleasantly surprising about the movie.
The key to the film working so well is the impressive ensemble cast Stiller assembled, including many familiar faces playing Hollywood archetypes with issues or something to prove with this movie. There’s little question that the casting is as important to the success of the movie’s humor as the writing, and Stiller seems to bring out the best in all of them, and they return the favor. While on the surface, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman isn’t too far removed from previous spoofs he’s done of modern action stars, it’s a deep, textured role that gets under the skin of what it’s like to be an actor with something to prove, one who’s experienced huge success and career-debilitating failure. Similarly, Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comic actor who specializes in scatological humor and fart jokes, but who buries his real-life woes in a massive drug problem that makes him a liability when the group realizes the reality of their danger. Whatever you may think of Stiller or Black’s past work, those prejudices should be put aside to watch this movie as they prove their detractors wrong with some of their funniest work.
Likewise, those who adored Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark earlier this summer might be surprised to see him spend an entire movie playing a role that’s nothing like himself. Multiple Oscar-winner Australian actor Kirk Lazarus went through an extensive pigment coloration process to play an African-American army sergeant, and his “method” is to remain in character as long as he’s shooting a movie, poking fun at actors who take themselves and their craft too seriously in hopes of winning awards. (Russell Crowe’s bad boy behavior is also targetted.) The most-layered character of the bunch, Downey Jr. also delivers the funniest lines, and even the gags we’ve already seen countless times in the adsyou know the onesare just as funny or funnier in context with the way Lazarus refuses to drop character.
Much of the humor in the situation comes from the inability for the three stars to get along, especially Stiller and Downey Jr. Having tried and failed to be taken seriously as an actor with his failed portrayal of a mentally-challenged man called “Simple Jack,” Speedman has more to prove with “Tropic Thunder,” and Lazarus’ blunt critique of Speedman’s performance isn’t as much a joke at the expense of mentally-challenged people as it is about actors playing them in hopes of winning awards.
As much as there is to have fun with there, the most surprising turn comes from the nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise as fat and balding studio executive Less Grossman, who constantly throws his weight around, shouting and swearing at everyone to get his way. It’s a pretty insane character on par with his T.J. Mackie from P.T. Anderson’s “Magnolia” though played more for the laughs, and an extended scene between him and Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s agent is the movie’s most surreal sequence, because you just know that both actors have probably experienced similar studio crisis meetings.
The only one with any semblance of sanity in the movie is Jay Baruchel in the meaty role of Kevin Sandusky, an inexperienced character actor who’s just happy to be working with such big stars. Him and Brandon T. Jackson as product-hocking rap star Alpa Chino add a lot of humor as the guys who say what the audience is usually thinking about how ridiculous the other three actors are behaving, but the above is merely the tip of a comedy iceberg that includes equally funny moments from Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Bill Hader and even the film’s newcomer Brandon Soo Hoo as the underage leader of the Flaming Dragons.
If the movie was just about the evolution of the characters’ nested dysfunctions, it would be entertaining enough, but working with cinematographer John Stoll (“The Thin Red Line”), Stiller has turned his fourth movie into one as visually-stimulating as the movies it’s trying to replicate, complete with incredible explosion-filled set pieces that stand up to the best of them. Even as things start to get a bit silly towards the end, by then you’re so caught up in these characters and their situation that it’s easy to go along for the ride.
The Bottom Line:
As gut-bustingly funny as “Tropic Thunder” is on so many levels, in the wrong hands it could have been as big a disaster as the movie it documents. The fact it works so well is a testament to what a great filmmaker Ben Stiller has become in the way he takes a simple high concept idea of a war movie gone wrong and turns it into biting social commentary about how people in the industry take themselves way too seriously. It’s the funniest movie of the year by far, one that can be watched repeatedly to gain more insight into its unmatched brilliance.