Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise
Running Time: 106 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
Tropic Thunder is the ultimate inside joke, made by actors for themselves. It’s pointless and directionless but is at times often hilarious. There hardly a performance in it that’s of any sustaining value or a plot that comes together in a way that resembles a story at all, yet I couldn’t look away. It’s like watching a car wreck. Credit star, director and co-writer Ben Stiller, who while a gifted comic actor, has proven over time to be a somewhat unfocused director. This film, which is nothing if not a fascinating experiment, just reinforces that.
Making movies about making movies is tricky business and I’ve read this one being compared to famous Hollywood satires like The Stunt Man and The Player, which isn’t particularly accurate or fair. This movie isn’t satirizing or spoofing anything, because doing that would actually require ideas. All we have here is Stiller throwing material against the wall to see what sticks, which actually yields better results than it should from time to time. Much of that can be attributed to two big stars tackling roles that are completely unlike anything we’ve seen them do before. It goes a long way because there isn’t much else to latch onto in what ultimately amounts to an audacious, risk-taking misfire. Only a filmmaker with a lot talent, and/or a variety of illegal substances in his system, could have made this. Stiller gets an “A” for an ambition but a “C+” for everything else.
The movie within a movie is Tropic Thunder and it’s based on Vietnam War vet John “Four-Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte invoking his mug shot) best-selling memoir of the same title. Helmed by novice theater director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and set on location in the Vietnamese jungle the film stars a myriad of self-absorbed, insecure actors wrestling with career and personal issues. We have a faded action star named Tugg Speedman (Stiller) whose only departure from that genre resulted in the I Am Sam-like catastrophe, Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally retarded farm hand. His headlining co-star is Oscar winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus, who prior to shooting underwent drastic skin pigmentation surgery for his role as African American soldier Lincoln Osiris.
Joining them is the drug-addicted star of a series of flatulence comedy films, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and up and coming unknown Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), the only actor who seems to have actually researched his role. Cockburn, overwhelmed and in over his head, must also deal with the threats of short-tempered, foul-mouthed Hollywood studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who won’t hesitate pulling the plug on this production unless he gets his act together. This leads the rookie director to take desperate measures in adding realism to the film and motivating his prima donna actors, the consequences of which result in disaster.
Tropic Thunder starts off on the wrong foot right away by just dumping these guys in the jungle with little to no explanation of who they are except for a couple of fake movie trailers preceding the film (two of which are funny). It also employs one of the most annoying devices that all movies about making movies seem to feel the need to include. It’s that action scene that goes on for 10 minutes until the camera pulls back to shockingly reveal a director yelling, “CUT!” I wonder how many action movies would actually contain a continuous 10-minute take? That’s beside the point though, since we’re watching this for laughs, not a lesson in filmmaking. The laughs are scattershot but when they come they arrive fast and hard.
I’d say at about the half-hour to forty-minute mark if someone asked me what the film was about or what was happening I couldn’t tell them. It completely flies off the rails and that’s not necessarily a criticism. Something big happens with the director and the entire shoot becomes a lot more realistic than any of the actors anticipated, specifically for Stiller’s Tug Speedman, who suffers a very unusual form of torture while being held for ransom by the enemy.
It’s difficult to really care what happens to any of these characters or about the making of the film in general since everything is really just an excuse for Stiller and the other actors to goof off. The idea of them starring in a movie that turns real never seems like it’s exploited to its full potential because the narrative is jumping all over the place trying to do a million things at once. It’s a jumbled mess with no real plot to speak of but I’ll admit at least 50 percent of what’s thrown out there is funny, which isn’t as bad a figure as it sounds considering the ambition of this project. Tropic Thunder is supposed to be an Apocalypse Now sized war epic and Stiller shoots it like it really is one. Of everything he tries, he has the most success invoking the look and feel of a big budget Hollywood action film, perhaps even better than a real one would.
The two performances in the film that have been most talked about and make the biggest impact, at least in terms of shock value, are those of Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise. A lot of Oscar buzz has started to build around Downey’s portrayal of a self-absorbed method actor completely oblivious to how offensive his black-faced take on an African-American soldier is. It’s ironic that awards talk would circulate for Downey since his character’s primary goal in life is to collect Oscars. Lazarus even gives a hilariously accurate speech to Stiller’s character explaining the kinds of roles that usually net Oscars.
Technically, Downey’s performance is a work of immersive comic genius but I couldn’t help but wonder what the point of it all was or what we’re accomplishing. Sure, he’s in black face but do we applaud him because the performance manages to not be offensive? Aside from him being in black face there’s nothing particularly controversial about the character and it’s far from a tightrope walk given the nature of the script.
If another actor (say, Tom Cruise) had played the role I think everyone would have been in an uproar regardless of whether he excelled at it. Downey probably will get a nomination for this but I think it’s more because he’s Downey and with a couple of obvious exceptions this wasn’t the strongest of years for supporting performances. He’ll also probably win Time "Man of the Year" and the Nobel Peace Prize at the rate he’s going. Still, I'll admit there aren’t many (if any) actors that could have pulled this off as well as he did.
It almost goes without saying that the unrecognizable Cruise’s role as fat, balding Hollywood power player Les Grossman couldn’t have come at a better time in his career. It’s a thrilling, hilarious, out of context departure and also the closest the movie comes to really skewering Hollywood. Cruise may be known for a lot of things that have nothing to do with his acting craft but when he shows up and delivers like this it reminds us why he was famous to begin with. I’m not sure how much of my massive enjoyment of his work here had to do with the actual performance or the jarring fact it was Cruise giving it but it doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s hysterical and his final scene is a real keeper. The performances of both Downey and Cruise deliver in much the same way clever Saturday Night Live impersonations would but I guess that’s fine. It’s entertaining.
Stiller and Jack Black pretty much just play variations on themselves with Black having nearly nothing to do most of the time. I actually forgot he was in the movie until the last 15 minutes. Only Baruchel seems to be given a real, relatable character to play and how he manages to slide in somewhat of a fully realized, sympathetic performance amidst such chaos is admirable. Danny McBride has a small, throwaway part as the special effects expert while Matthew McConaughey steps into the role of Tug’s agent, Rick Peck, which was originally supposed to be filled by Owen Wilson. Of course, as everyone knows by now, he dropped out due to highly publicized personal issues. Watching, I couldn’t help but think Wilson would have been a better fit as McConaughey again just coasts along on his charisma even though not much of it is even present this time.
A lot of people loved this movie and I have no difficulty seeing why. There’s a lot to admire but for me all the pieces just didn’t come together like they should have. I wish it were more focused, although part of me wonders if it would have been as interesting to watch if it was. Maybe not, but I know the result would have been a better film. This is the kind of big event action comedy that plays better on the big screen and it’s reasonable to argue if I had seen it in a packed theater on opening night it could have made the half-star difference. Even then though, once the high wore off a couple of hours later it would probably hit me that what I saw was essentially empty and pointless. That’s not something you'd expect with this kind of talent involved. Tropic Thunder may be a bad movie but at least it’s more entertaining than many of the good movies I’ve seen this year.