An uproariously funny war-movie spoof starring, co-written, and directed by Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder is the kind of outrageous no-holds-barred comedy that really works because it manages to keep its smarts while being so dumb.
Few films can manage to be an idiotic comedy and a biting satire at the same time; Stiller previously tried with Zoolander, which was unbearably funny at times but ultimately failed because the fashion industry was too obscure a target.
With echoes of the doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which followed everything that could and did go wrong during the making of Apocalypse Now, Stiller tackles Hollywood here, and beneath all the violence and profanity and dick and fart jokes, the offensive stereotyping and uncomfortable epithets, there’s an underlying level of truth that makes everything that much funnier. This is what Hollywood movies are about. What’s wrong with them?
Deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) has begun filming the Vietnam War film Tropic Thunder, based on the memoirs of grizzled veteran ‘Four-Leaf’ Tayback (Nick Nolte). He’s assembled quite a cast: action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), who’s coming off the critical disappointment of Simple Jack, in which he played a mentally handicapped man who talked to animals, plays the lead.
Aussie Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a 5-time Oscar winner, has undergone pixel-augmentation surgery to star as an African American sergeant.
Rounding out the cast are rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), star of The Fatties series, and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).
When Cockburn fails to elicit the realistic performances he needs, he takes Tayback’s advice and sends his cast into the middle of the jungle, preparing to shoot the film guerilla style.
Things don’t exactly go as planned, however, and soon the cast is lost in the jungle, thinking they’re performing the movie but actually in real danger. Speedman is kidnapped by heroin traffickers Flaming Dragon, and the rest of the cast must transform into the soldiers they’re portraying in order to save him.
There’s spoof and then there’s satire, which is what Tropic Thunder delivers in spades: this is one of the funniest films about filmmaking and Hollywood clichés ever made, and it has that biting edge that reminds us no matter how idiotic The Fatties: Fart II is, Eddie Murphy was doing the same thing years ago, and making millions.
Comedy is a subjective genre; I can’t tell you what’s funny and what isn’t, but I can say I laughed harder during Tropic Thunder than any film in recent memory.
Cast is exceptional; Downey Jr. deserves some kind of accolades for his performance as Lazarus, managing to be consistently funny while going through the movie in blackface and never becoming offensive, even when he delves into minstrel show territory.
Nolte and Danny McBride, as pyrotechnics expert Cody, are plenty of fun, as is Matthew McConaughey, as Speedman’s agent. And there’s a note-perfect cameo performance by an A-list actor that highlights the movie; read below to reveal who.
Make sure to arrive on time: the fake trailers that open the film are some of the funniest moments in the movie, especially Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus and Tobey Macguire as monks exploring forbidden love in Satan’s Alley.
NOTE: I ruin one of the film’s best gags – an unexpected cameo – in the following paragraph, so if you want to go in fresh, stop reading now. Still, it’s nothing that most other reviewers have kept secret.
It’s not easy to steal the show from Downey Jr. in blackface, but that’s exactly what Tom Cruise does in his extended cameo as Les Grossman, in what New York Times critic Manohla Dargis has termed ‘Jewface’.
Cruise – convincingly bald, pot-bellied, bearded and spectacled – is almost unrecognizable as studio chief Les Grossman, but you should know it’s him the moment he opens his mouth, some fifteen minutes into the movie.
He’s an absolute riot, easily the best thing about the film, spewing profanity-laced venom with such deadpan conviction the way few other actors can; his phone conversation with kidnappers Flaming Dragon is a definitive comic highlight.