film review: TROPIC THUNDER

What’s most interesting about Tropic Thunder is not so much the audacity of its politically incorrect humor as its self-deprecating “fuck you” message to Hollywood. The entire film is a rigid middle finger to the very industry that has spawned the countless movies Tropic Thunder lampoons, as well the movers and shakers that keep the industry running. This is more than co-star, co-writer and director Ben Stiller biting the hand that feeds him, this is Stiller and everyone else involved in the movie devouring the hand that feeds them and the arm it is attached to, and then shitting it back out in the face of Hollywood. The end result is a wickedly funny satire that defiantly pokes fun at the film industry, and doesn’t really care who it offends in the process.

Stiller co-stars as Tugg Speedman, a high-priced action film superstar whose career has seen better days, and whose actual talents as an actor have been called into question. Tugg is starring in the mega-budget Vietnam War film Tropic Thunder, based on the book by grizzled war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). Tugg’s co-stars include Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedian best known for his film series The Fatties and his reputed heroin addiction, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a five-time Oscar winner from Australia who has undergone special surgery to dye his skin black to he can play an African American, rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and regular guy Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

Due to ego clashes, filming of Tropic Thunder isn’t going well, and director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is terrified he will be fired and replaced by someone else. At the suggestion of Tayback, Damien decides to take his cast into the jungle, and shoot the film guerilla style using hidden cameras. But things go terribly wrong when Damien steps on a landmine, and the cast separates because of creative differences. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, the film’s executive producer, Len Grossman (Tom Cruise), must make some tough production decisions when Tugg is captured by Southeast Asian heroin smugglers and held for ransom.

Tropic Thunder is primarily a lowbrow comedy that is not afraid to go for both cheap laughs, and laughs derived from humor that pushes the boundaries of bad taste. But it is important to recognize the film as a satire of Hollywood, brutal though it may be. Some people aren’t quite seeing the film for what it is, especially when it appears to be making fun of the mentally retarded. Stiller and company are in fact making fun of Hollywood itself and how it treats the mentally handicapped, resulting in one of the film’s funniest dialog exchanges between Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus, as Lazarus explains that Speedman’s performance in Simple Jack was “full retard.”

Downey Jr. gives a great performance, stealing the thunder—pun intended—from the rest of the Tropic Thunder cast. Stiller as an actor is solid, but when all is said and done, he doesn’t bring anything more to the film than you would expect. The biggest disappointment of the three top-billed cast is Jack Black, who only seems to hit the comedic mark some of the time, while the rest of the time he simply seems to be wasting time. The real treats in the cast are Danny McBride, who co-stars as the film’s head of special effects, and Tom Cruise, who under a bunch of make-up gives a profanity-fueled performance which is simply ridiculous.

Far from a perfect film, Tropic Thunder is, none the less, exactly what it sets out to be, which is a laugh-out-loud comedy that is not afraid to offend those with knees that are quick to jerk. As a director, this is Stiller at his best, crafting a film that is consistently and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.

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