People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
  Review: Tropic Thunder
I don’t know what’s going on this summer, but it’s becoming clear that this is the best summer for quality movies in several years. Sure, not all the huge hits have been great (I really enjoyed Hancock’s first half, but the big twist sucked and made me not care about anything that happened afterwards, and the less said about Indiana Jones and the Script We Should Have Rejected, the better), and there have been a few high-profile flops like Speed Racer and The Love Guru, but between bona fide blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight and other quality popcorn fare like The Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Pineapple Express, I don’t remember the last time I had so much fun in movie theatres in the span of a couple of months. And I’m happy to report that Tropic Thunder keeps that streak alive.

Tropic Thunder is an action-comedy co-written, directed by and starring Ben Stiller as one of a group of vain, self-involved Hollywood superstars trying (and largely failing) to make a Vietnam epic. At some point, the grizzled veteran on whose memoirs the movie is based (Nick Nolte, having lots of fun with his recent burned-out image) suggests leaving the spoiled stars out in the actual jungle under the auspices of shooting “guerilla style” with hidden digital cameras, to teach them all a lesson. But before long, the actors find themselves dealing with a very real gang of heroin-processing paramilitary types, with only their wits and guns full of blanks to keep themselves alive.

I was one of the few people who loved the short lived sketch-comedy series The Ben Stiller Show when it actually aired on Fox (there are something like 20 of us, not including the cast and crew and their families), in which Stiller first displayed his talent for pitch-perfect pop-culture satire, and Tropic Thunder is no different. It opens with phony trailers for each of its fictional stars’ movies, and while fake trailers are sort of a played-out joke in and of themselves, Stiller’s versions are the best I’ve seen, nailing virtually every aspect of modern trailers, from the music to the sound effects to the voiceover, each time taking things just far enough to work as a parody, but being careful to not go too far over the top as to make them too silly. That vibe continues for all of Tropic Thunder, which manages to be not only one of the best Hollywood satires I’ve seen, but also a ridiculously fun summer action-comedy.

Tropic Thunder is similar to Pineapple Express in that it’s an action-comedy that doesn’t skimp on the action. The plot, which I won’t spoil too much of, actually hinges on some pretty real tension (“real” being a relative term in almost any comedy), putting the characters in danger that doesn’t feel as silly as you’d think, given the concept. And as much as the characters, particularly Stiller’s fading action star Tugg Speedman and Robert Downey Jr.’s way-too-method Kirk Lazarus, are genuinely ridiculous, I found myself really engaged with them the way I didn’t in, say, Step Brothers (which made me laugh really hard, but it's more of a loose collection of gags than a proper movie). All the scenes where Stiller and Downey interact with each other are wonderful. One of the reasons a lot of movies about movies don't connect with audiences is that the people who make them get caught up in satirizing a world they know very well, and they can sometimes forget that Joe and Jane Moviegoer aren't really that interested in 90 minutes of bitter jokes about talent agencies. While Tropic Thunder does indeed have such jokes (Matthew McConaughey turns up in a small but fun role as Stiller's agent), it never felt too inside-baseball to work with broader audiences – I saw it in a packed theatre, and everyone laughed their respective asses off.

The standout performance in Tropic Thunder is, unsurprisingly, Downey as a multiple-Oscar-winning Australian thespian known for his chameleonic approach to acting, who has undergone a surgical process to temporarily alter his skin pigmentation so he can play a black man. Just on paper, to call this a tricky role is a crazy understatement; it means one of the movie’s main characters is essentially a white actor in blackface. Indeed, the movie has a lot of fun with the racially uncomfortable nature of the character, with the actual black guy in the group, a rapper-turned-actor called Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), giving him static almost every time he opens his mouth. But watching Downey absolutely tear up Tropic Thunder made me lament the fact that at Oscar time comedies are virtually ignored, because this is one of the most genuinely amazing performances I’ve seen all year, in any genre. If you thought Downey was great in Iron Man (which I most definitely did), you may not be ready for him here.

There’s another performance I have to mention, and that’s Tom Cruise in a small role as a vicious, foul-mouthed studio head. I’d read a few months back that he had a cameo, so I expected one scene with a couple of lines. But no, Cruise’s role is a full-on part, albeit a small one, but he’s hilarious. If this is the latest salvo in the post-crazy-meltdown Tom Cruise Career Reclamation Project, I declare it a full success. I had no idea he was capable of being this funny.

When I was wowed by Hellboy II last month, I expressed skepticism here that The Dark Knight could top it. (I was wrong.) When I saw Pineapple Express last week, I thought it was a slam-dunk for the best comedy of the summer. On a personal level, I still give Pineapple Express a slight edge, but overall I think Tropic Thunder has wider appeal, and is just as funny. Either way, both films are excellent, and among the most fun you’ll have in a theatre this summer. Tropic Thunder is a riot from start to finish.


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