By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
The history of filmmakers skewering Hollywood's darker excesses is a long and rich one, from Billy Wilder through Robert Altman. With "Tropic Thunder," a rude, crude, over-the-top satire about rude, crude, over-the-top action movies, Ben Stiller makes an ambitious and surprisingly effective bid to join those vaunted ranks.
It might be a stretch to compare "Tropic Thunder's" profane, often graphically gross humor to Wilder's far subtler noir stylings in "Sunset Boulevard," or the nihilistic portrait of coldblooded ambition in "The Player." But in its own sophomoric, stupid-smart way, Stiller's portrayal of ego, pomposity and macho swagger manages to be just as on-point and subversive.
But let's be real: We're talking about a movie that gets its laughs early on from shots of a man being disemboweled, another character with his hands shot off and an improbably hilarious scene involving a severed head.
Indeed, "Tropic Thunder" establishes its tone immediately, as it opens with three parody "trailers" that even at their most sexist, disgusting and pandering play dangerously close to real life. Between an ad for a soda called Booty Sweat, in which rap artist Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) rubs against two dancers while repeating an epithet for the female anatomy, and a trailer for the signature franchise of Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), in which he plays every member of a morbidly obese and flatulent family, "Tropic Thunder" should effectively weed out the easily offended even before the movie -- or, more accurately, the movie-within-the-movie -- gets started.
That movie, the eponymous "Tropic Thunder," is an adaptation of a Vietnam War memoir written by one Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who survived a vicious VC ambush without his hands. He's being played in the movie by Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action star who aspires to greater things; his most critically acclaimed performance so far has been as a developmentally challenged farm boy in "Simple Jack." Speedman's co-star is the five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Australian with the temper of Russell Crowe and the commitment of Daniel Day-Lewis ("I don't read the script, the script reads me"). He doesn't drop character, he tells a colleague, until the DVD commentary.
Lazarus has undergone a "pigmentation augmentation operation" in order to play his African American character, so Downey spends most of "Tropic Thunder" impersonating a clueless, racist jerk with a range that spans Redd Foxx and "The Jeffersons." "I'm the dude playing a dude disguised as another dude," he tells Speedman. Such is "Tropic Thunder's" hall-of-mirrors sense of humor that only gets more silly and surreal when Speedman, Lazarus, Portnoy and Chino, and a supporting actor named Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), get dumped in the middle of the Southeast Asian jungle by their director (Steve Coogan) in order to get more authentic performances.
Coogan's character is the center of one of "Tropic Thunder's" funniest scenes, when after a come-to-Jesus speech to his cast, he's subjected to a sudden, flawlessly timed payoff. Left on their own, without the creature comforts of their cosseted lives to assist them, the actors unknowingly come into the sights of a local drug ring, whose assaults they mistake for the work of their trigger-happy special effects coordinator (a mulleted Danny McBride).
As he did in the fashion industry sendup "Zoolander," Stiller here puts his mouth into a petulant moue and paints dark rings around his eyes, the better to convey Speedman's vanity and elephantine ego. He never winks, nor do any of his pitch-perfect co-stars, who attack their roles with the gusto of gourmands tucking into a bacchanalian buffet.
Downey has been understandably singled out for a role that rounds out a triumphant comeback summer, but "Tropic Thunder" really qualifies as an ensemble piece: It's "Galaxy Quest" meets "Apocalypse Now."
And, as one long, snarky Hollywood in-joke, it's often side-splittingly funny, from the movie's opening scene on the over-budgeted fake-authentic "Tropic Thunder" set to Speedman building a temporary jungle shelter out of an InStyle magazine his agent sent in a gift basket. That agent, by the way, is played by Matthew McConaughey, who is soon joined by an unrecognizable Tom Cruise as a vulgar studio chief. When the drug ring takes Speedman hostage and calls for ransom, the two Los Angeles suits are convinced it's a rival agency playing hardball; Cruise's profanity-laced response sends "Tropic Thunder" into outrageous territory even by the movie's own gonzo standards.
"Tropic Thunder" has had its share of controversy even before it's opened, beginning with the decision to put Downey in "blackface" and, more recently, an outcry from groups representing the disabled for the film's repeated use of the term "retard" to describe Speedman's "Simple Jack" character. But it's difficult to see the offense in either choice: Lazarus is repeatedly confronted by Chino for his inane and insulting characterization of a black character, and a scene in which Lazarus criticizes Speedman for "going full retard" in "Simple Jack" is a put-down only of overweening, ambitious actors who take roles as physically and mentally challenged characters because they're proven Oscar-bait.
With luck, that distinction won't prove too subtle for a movie whose modest ambition -- to shoot Armani-sleek fish in a Voss water-filled barrel -- is nonetheless executed with giddy, boneheaded flair. "Tropic Thunder" offers up yet one more cringe-inducing hooray for Hollywood, if only because it provides such enduring fodder for ridicule.
Tropic Thunder (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for pervasive profanity including sexual references, violent content and drug material.