Film review: Tropic Thunder

With self-conscious humour permeating the comedy genre, and an unquenchable Hollywood thirsting for ever more bombast and reflexivity, the only place left to go from riffing on cinematic forebears – a practice which lost all appeal somewhere between Kill Bill and this month’s Disaster Movie – is satirizing the industry itself.

Ben Stiller’s latest directorial effort, Tropic Thunder, does just that, rushing past early send-ups of Platoon and Apocalypse Now in pursuit of loftier fare, namely Tom Cruise as an overweight, balding, invective-spewing studio executive, and a series of running jokes about the business of film-making.

Tropic Thunder

Directed by Ben Stiller.
Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey

It begins with a group of fake ads and movie trailers, Grindhouse-style, establishing our protagonists as the pampered prima donnas they are. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a falling action star entombed in a high-octane, Michael Bay-like franchise; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a pretentious five-time Academy Award-winner who can’t separate himself from the roles he inhabits; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rap star whose product line includes the “Booty Sweat” energy drink; and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is comedian of the low-brow, gross-out variety.

Then a rookie director (Steve Coogan) signs the lot of them to his film adaptation of Vietnam veteran “Four Leaf” Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) memoir and when the project falls behind schedule, he is forced to take his self-absorbed celebrities into the jungle to shoot the rest of the film “guerrilla-style.” They promptly find themselves in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle of opium production, facing heavily armed drug runners, Portnoy’s heroin withdrawal, and plenty of infighting.

The gags are divided between two main conceits: The Man Who Knew Too Little-style humour stemming from the actors thinking they are in a contrived movie-set scenario when they are facing real, deadly enemies; and jabs at the movie industry itself. In the latter category are running jokes about Speedman’s having played the mentally challenged hero of Simple Jack, an I Am Sam-like feel-good movie, and Lazarus’s “controversial” choice to have his skin darkened in order to play the squad leader (his tendency to stay in character full-time means he comes down on the black side of every racial discussion, to Chino’s chagrin).

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the smaller roles that carry Tropic Thunder to success. Ben Stiller (thankfully) has insufficient screen-time to develop his ubiquitous character neuroses to a full-blown state; Downey Jr.’s racial confusion wears out its welcome without earning the kind of laughs it has potential for; and Jack Black, as enthusiastically hilarious as ever, seems to have been reduced to a smaller role in the editing process. Tom Cruise’s much-heralded cameo role as the demanding, foul-tempered movie mogul Les Grossman provides some of the film’s most potent humour, while Nick Nolte chews the scenery much as he did in The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Matthew McConaughey inhabits a superfluous pretty-boy straight man role that might have been written for his blond Frat Pack lookalike, Owen Wilson.

While it tries a bit too hard to be self-conscious, Tropic Thunder gets credit for taking satire into largely uncharted waters, even at the risk of offending certain groups (which the Simple Jack references most decidedly did). The action scenes don’t achieve quite the Scary Movie level of excess that would make them endlessly funny, but even though it doesn’t succeed at all as an action film, this oddball spoof-cum-action-comedy trailblazer scores enough laughs to be entirely worthwhile.