Hollywood making fun of itself on screen is a dicey prospect. Occasionally, it can produce high-quality zingers (1992’s The Player, 1995’s Get Shorty, for example). But, more often than not, it ends up as unfunny, in-joke-filled navelgazing. (Have you seen 1993’s The Pickle? Of course you haven’t. Don’t.) Leave it to Ben Stiller and pals, though, to come up with a poke in the movie industry’s eye that is both accurate and blisteringly, brutally funny.
Tropic Thunder starts off with a selection of fake movie trailers, each encapsulating the career of one of the film’s four protagonists. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a self-promoting rap mogul more interested in selling his new energy drink (Booty Sweat) than in making music. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action star grinding his career into the ground with endless sequels. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a tubby, drug-abusing comedian who traffics in endless fart jokes. The final member of our quartet, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), is an Academy Award-winning method actor with a taste for ability-stretching roles. (The trailer for Lazarus’ gay-monks-in-love film is undoubtedly one of the film’s high points. Hilarious as it is, it’s spot-on enough to qualify as a real art-house release--overeager Enigma soundtrack and all.)
These four ego-driven superstars have been recruited to headline a mega-budget Hollywood war film, an adaptation of the bloody Vietnam War biography of shell-shocked vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, another perfectly cast castmember). But, after only five days on the set, the film is millions of dollars over budget and the stars are acting more like pampered divas than hard-boiled soldiers. Tayback suggests that the film’s director (Brit comedian Steve Coogan in a small but welcome role) send the actors out into the jungle in which they’re shooting to experience a bit of “the real shit.”
This plan goes very wrong very quickly, stranding our egotistical-yet-insecure actors in the backwoods of Vietnam. In short order, they cross paths with a small army of gun-toting drug runners who mistake the actors for DEA agents. Hijinks ensue.
It takes a long string of coincidences to keep our actors thinking--despite the increasingly obvious danger--that they’re still making some sort of guerilla-style film. Of course, it’s not the credulity-stretching plot that is the primary focus of Topic Thunder. Instead, it’s the merciless self-mocking of the stars that gives this film its comic momentum. Stiller has the least to do on screen, perhaps because he also had to co-write and direct this effort (his first hat trick since 2001’s Zoolander).
The ringer in the castlist is (no surprise) Robert Downey Jr., who’s having himself one hell of a summer. Downey’s Australian-born actor is so committed to getting into character that he’s actually undergone a controversial surgical “skin darkening treatment’ so that he can play an African-American--a turn of events that doesn’t sit well with the film’s actual African-American castmember, Mr. Chino. “I know who I am!” spouts Lazarus in a moment of semi-confident self-reflection. “I’m a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude.”
The real surprise of this film, though, is Tom Cruise, who sheds quite a bit of his trademark vanity to play an overweight, balding studio executive (allegedly based on his last, not-so-beloved boss Sumner Redstone). Cruise has so much damn fun loosening up and spewing foul-mouthed invective on cast and crew, it makes you wonder why the actor has spent so much of his career sucking.
Make no mistake: Tropic Thunder is not some genteel parody, politely pointing up the frauds and foibles of the moviemaking industry. It is a raunchy, raucous, vehemently un-P.C. rant. Though the film has raised some hackles for its portrayal of African-Americans and the mentally handicapped (Stiller’s aging actor once tried to grab Oscar gold by going “full retard” in a syrupy drama titled Simple Jack), its targets are clearly demarcated. It’s the ridiculous, overreaching actors who choose to tackle these sorts of roles who are being lampooned here.
In the end, Tropic Thunder manages to work an almost invisible magic. With its shameless slapstick buffoonery, endlessly quotable dialogue, outrageously crude jokes, priceless celebrity camoes and pointed criticisms of the Hollywood money machine, Tropic Thunder is a very subtle satire wrapped in a very broad comedy. War may be hell, but moviemaking is hellier.