Posted: 08/14/2008


Tropic Thunder


by Matt Wedge

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Forget about all the controversy surrounding this film. Forget about the fevered debates over whether or not it’s offensive to the mentally handicapped, African-Americans, Asians or, absurdly enough, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone. The only thing that matters with an over-the-top comedy of this type is that it manages to bring the funny. Happily, this is the case, as several moments bring about that rarest of reactions to a studio comedy: the belly laugh. Hard, embarrassingly loud, tears-running-down-the-cheeks belly laughs.

Ben Stiller’s directorial follow-up to the similarly hilarious and demented Zoolander gives us the story of three movie stars. Stiller (Meet the Parents) plays Tugg Speedman, a rapidly fading movie star who is looking to his current film, a war drama called Tropic Thunder to pull his career out of a downward spiral. His co-stars include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), an Australian who takes method acting to the extreme of undergoing a process to darken his skin pigment in order to play an African-American soldier and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, School of Rock), a heroin-addicted, crass comedian who has achieved fame playing every member of an overweight family known as The Farters.

When these three egos clash and nearly ruin the production, the director (Steve Coogan, 24 Hour Party People) takes the advice of a grizzled war veteran (a perfectly cast Nick Nolte, Jefferson in Paris) and drops the trio, along with their supporting cast, into the jungles to shoot the film guerrilla-style. Of course, the plan goes immediately awry and a gang of heroin manufacturers descends upon the actors, mistaking them for D.E.A. agents. It’s from this silly premise that Stiller takes pinpoint satirical aim at Hollywood egos, bloated action films and racial stereotypes.

By this point, the obsessive Method-actor, the drug-addicted comic, inappropriate product placements, slimy agents, obnoxious studio heads and Tony Scott-style action flicks have become pop-cultural mainstays. While it could be argued that they are far too easy targets for a Hollywood satire, it doesn’t make it any less funny when Stiller and his co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen line these clichés up against the wall and proceed to blast the living hell out of them. There is also an element of nostalgia to the often anti-political correctness of much of the humor. The willingness to cheerfully offend nearly every special interest group for a laugh is reminiscent of early Mel Brooks films like Blazing Saddles and The Producers.

Most everyone does a fine job in the talent-loaded cast. Stiller is suitably clueless as the action movie actor out of his league. His scene with what he assumes is a prosthetic severed head is both stomach turning and hilarious. Black is finally given a character where he’s supposed to act like he’s jacked up on drugs and comes through with the most over-the-top performance in a movie full of over-the-top performances. Downey has some hilarious moments as the pretentious actor who can’t help but feel superior to his costars even as he fails to realize that he has turned his character into little more than a jive-talking caricature that wouldn’t be out of place on a bad ’70s sitcom.

In fact, if there is a flaw to the film, it’s that the cast includes so many talented comic actors in supporting roles, that some of them feel underused. Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) is given his best role to date as the only member of the movie’s cast who is halfway sane, but still ends up being used mostly as background dressing. Coogan, who can be one of the funniest actors on film when given the right material, is criminally underused. Even Nolte and Matthew McConaughey (Frailty) get big laughs in their limited roles, leaving the audience wanting more. When was the last time you could say that about either of them?

But that complaint is really the result of one of the film’s stronger aspects: it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Too many recent comedies have tried to stretch a limited premise into a two-hour epic and have wound up being less funny as a result. Clocking in at just over 100 minutes, Tropic Thunder manages to milk its ridiculous concept for every laugh available and roll the credits before the jokes run out.

Here’s to hoping that Stiller spends more time in the future writing and directing his own projects. They are always more brash and entertaining than anything he does for other filmmakers. And more importantly, they tend to be much funnier.

Matt Wedge is a writer and a film critic in Chicago.

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