A few weeks ago, Wall-E was released and quickly received some of the best critical praise a film has gotten all year. Then The Dark Knight was released, and immediately dominated the summer movie market. But with the biggest movies of the summer out of the way, what are we supposed to do now? Sit through those again?
By the way, the answer is yes. Both of them. Over, and over, and over again.
However, once we’ve all had our fill of those two triumphs just when we’re wondering if their tremendous successes have signaled the end of blockbuster season, Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder charges in to remind us that this summer is not over! We do not have to want for movies with a nine figure budget! We can still blow things up!
Tropic Thunder is a big, big comedy. It is the story of a doomed film production crew, making an epic Vietnam War picture. Things are falling apart, with celebrity egos clashing in front of the camera and ineptitude running wild behind it. When the head of the studio threatens to pull the plug on the whole show, the film’s director leads the cast into the jungle to save the project by shooting it guerrilla style. It turns out, however, that the jungle in which they’re shooting is occupied by real life guerrillas, and wackiness ensues.
Ben Stiller is really swinging for the fences with this one. The film’s scope is enormous. The presence of cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, The Thin Red Line) is enough to prove Stiller’s dedication to adding a little legitimacy to his directorial reel. He really seems to want everything about this movie to work, not just the comedy. And it looks fantastic! Gigantic, sweeping helicopter shots, glowing fireside scenes, and explosive action sequences evoke conditioned responses to war movies, keeping us intensely involved with what’s happening on screen. And the whole time they’ve got us glued to the screen, the cast and screenwriters slap us silly with jokes.
Each performance in Tropic Thunder is a poke at some one. The actors lock their tongues in their cheeks and make fun of themselves, each other, their industry, and their livelihoods. Ben Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a Tom Cruise action hero type, whose acting talent has never really been acknowledged. Robert Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor (seemingly a combination of Russell Crowe and himself), who undergoes skin pigmentation to play a black soldier in the film. Jack Black plays Jeff ‘Fats’ Portnoy, a clear send up of Andy Dick, who wants to get out of the fart joke business, and into serious acting. If only he could kick the drugs.
The standout performance of the film is, without a doubt, Robert Downey Jr. It seems that for years, Hollywood keeps giving him roles that could kill him. Everyone knows he’s a recovering addict, but they still give him the roles for which “research” might end in tragedy. In Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, he plays a pill popping con man. In A Scanner Darkly, he plays a drug addled, paranoid genius. We watched alcohol and drugs destroy him as Paul Avery in Zodiac. Hell, even Tony Stark is an alcoholic! If they’re going to continue to offer him these roles, they might as well send him a bag of blow with each script! So it’s refreshing to see him perform outside the realm of character flaws we’ve become accustomed to associating with all his previous performances and his personal life.
The reason he’s so much fun to watch in this role is because he looks like he’s having an absolute blast. Come on, white people, let’s be honest. If you could run around screaming like a grizzly old black man, you would. Robert Downey Jr. looks like he’s having more fun doing just that than any of us could possibly imagine. There’s even a subtle nod to this, when Lazarus goes on a roll with some great jive talk, and breaks character to laugh at how clever he is, but quickly reels himself in. The progression of facial expressions in that brief moment is so funny that the laugh it gets lingers throughout the rest of the scene. Those of you out there with angular haircuts would probably describe the scene as very “Meta.”
Ben Stiller and Jack Black are not without their moments, but there’s nothing revolutionary about their performances like Downey’s. Aside from a few quick cuts to some of the highlights of Black’s character’s career, his presence is really for the sake of a withdrawal joke. He runs around itching his skin and swearing, slowing down his unit and making us giggle. It’s the closest thing to the Tenacious D Jables we know and love that we’re going to find in theaters. Ben Stiller is playing what must be a stock character for him. Like Will Ferrell, but without some kind of silly sport to hold up the plot. He plays an overly confident and oblivious idiot. Though he’s never as cartoonishly stupid as, say, Zoolander, Speedman’s proudest role, is as a retarded kid in the fictional film Simple Jack, Speedman’s hardest bid for a statue.
The supporting cast is rock solid, keeping us grounded in the real world Or, at least a world in which movies are made (It’s a very silly business). It’s nice to see Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up, Undeclared) working outside of the Judd Apatow mafia. He plays a young actor in his first role, still looking up to his film star idols even through their current perilous situation. Brandon T. Jackson plays a rapper named Alpa Chino, who constantly hawks energy drinks and bars, and reminds Downey (and us) how completely inappropriate his performance is. Nick Nolte, playing a washed up, homeless looking version of himself as a Vietnam vet, shares a great deal of his screen time with comedy’s new wunderkind Danny McBride, who plays the overeager pyrotechnics master.
Perhaps the best part of the film is its many cameos. Matthew McConaughey, as Stiller’s agent, seems to have taken a tip from the Nicolas Cage School of Acting: Do an impersonation of yourself. And it works! He’s just charming enough to be annoying, which is probably a closer representation of talent agents than Jeremy Piven in Entourage. British comedy legend Steve Coogan (who also stars in the upcoming Hamlet 2), performs as the film’s director. Bill Hader (SNL, Superbad), plays an executive producer on location, who answers to the psychotic studio head, played by a well disguised Tom Cruise. Oh boy, Tom Cruise. This movie is exactly what his career was in desperate need of. He gets to show everyone that he isn’t as dire and self involved as everyone has come to believe he is. He pokes fun at himself, his bosses, and literally waves his ass in the face of everyone who didn’t think he had it in him.
Tropic Thunder is truly a blockbuster comedy. I don’t mean one of those movies that flies in under the radar and then blows up. This movie declares war on those films. It rides up, fires a warning shot, then charges in head on. With all the money and power that Ben Stiller has amassed over the years, it looks like he called in every favor he could, spent as much money as he needed, and put forth every bit of effort he could to make not just a solid, broad comedy, but a great big comedy opus. Tropic Thunder will definitely keep up the momentum of one of the biggest summers for movies in years.