Tropic Thunder

August, 2008, Comedy

Directed by:Ben Stiller

Starring:Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan, and Bill Hader

Ben Stiller belongs to a long line of comedic actors whose screen persona never strays very far from the likeable but beleaguered schmuck who’s sufficiently dense he never realizes until it’s too late that the joke’s on him. From There’s Something About Mary, (1998) through countless variations, (Meet The Parents, Along Came Polly, Meet The Fockers, The Heartbreak Kid, etc.) Stiller’s perennial character remains the semi-geek who’s forever getting dumped on, literally and figuratively. His principal variation on this theme can be found in another collection of Stiller films, (Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch, Dodgeball, Anchorman et al) in which his character is every bit the inadequate dweeb save only for a thick layer of arrogance based on self-perceived but obviously non-existent skills. Nearing 43, Stiller’s made an entire career, (and no small amount of pocket change) recapitulating this single theme with its one variation, like a two-note piccolo player. As a result, it’s not hard to see why his principal audience is primarily composed of male adolescents enamored of fart jokes, the removal of nasal obstructions and a generally puerile approach to the opposite sex. 

Tropic Thunder finds Stiller on both ends of the camera in this satiric take on big-budget Hollywood action films and the oversized egos involved in making them. In the course of its 107-minute running time, the actor/director and his two co-screenwriters manage to skewer method acting, toadying agents, product tie-ins and the gung-ho Vietnam-era war films of Sylvester Stallone along with sly takes on screen superstars like Marlon Brando and Russell Crowe. Unfortunately, the screenplay also specializes in un-amusing, depictions of racism, ethnicity and mental retardation, doing so with such heavy-handed repetitiveness that the film lurches from razor’s-edge satire to boorish insensitivity and back again, teasing audiences with acute observations one minute and mis-guided, juvenile caricatures the next. 

In front of the camera, Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a not terribly bright piece of beefcake whose fading career depends on his performance in a movie to be based on a book written by a grizzled vet named Four-Leaf Tayback, (Nick Nolte). Speedman’s co-stars include a modern day Fanny Arbuckle named Jeff Portnoy, (Jack Black) and Kirk Lazarus, (Robert Downey Jr.) an Australian acting wunderkind who dyes his skin for enhanced credibility in his role as an African American grunt. This trio and their supporting cast and crew are on location in Southeast Asia when the director’s lust for realism places them in a real shooting war with a local drug lord who goes off script and holds Speedman for ransom. Since the film is behind schedule and way over budget, Hollywood producer Les Grossman, (Tom Cruise) decides to abandon Speedman to his captors and opt for payment of the insurance money he’ll receive if his star dies. How this tangled web of events gets solved in the final reel provides Stiller the opportunity to offer his version of a climatic, big-budget battle scene, but it serves only to confuse his viewers - - are we to assume our legs are still being pulled, or is the altruistic heroism displayed in this part of the film for real? Is it possible the director really doesn’t know?

If Stiller’s a stand-in for Stallone’s military theatrics as Rambo, Downey for Crowe’s varied and lavishly-praised performances and Black for some of the recent comedies of Eddie Murphy Jr., the script’s insistence that they repeatedly milk their impersonations robs them of the sting briefer references would have produced. It’s genuinely funny to hear the gifted Downey slide in and out of character, but he returns to the bit so often it’s lost its punch by the time the final credits roll. Stiller can be amusing when he reprises Brando’s climatic scene in Apocalypse Now, but grotesquely unfunny when he riffs on Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. (Jack Black’s cocaine addicted Portnoy misfires from the get-go.) These bloated failures in sarcasm are capped by an interminable (and vulgar) dance performed by Cruise’s overtly Jewish producer as the final credits roll, providing a troubling slice of ethnic slur as gross as it is wickedly appealing. (If Cruise threw himself into this mini-appearance to respond to his own career problems of late, his raspberry to Hollywood’s power structure has a painfully anti-Semitic tone.)

In the end, Tropic Thunder, like so many recent film comedies, takes a clever plot and burdens it with excess - - there’s too much of almost everything here, turning artistic license into something faintly distasteful.  Despite its genuinely funny bits and pieces, Tropic’s too long, too biased in favor of crude over shrewd and ultimately too excessive for its own good - - providing precisely the type of Hollywood excess it set out to mock.

The verdict? Watch the fake previews when this one comes out on DVD and skip the feature which follows….  


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