Dir. by Ben Stiller - 2 hours
Official Red Band Trailer
by Clayton Hollifield
Every few years, Ben Stiller comes out with a film that justifies wading through his more mainstream fare. Usually, it's one that he's directed himself (which is a pretty short of films, considering he's been acting in films for over twenty years), and the idea behind it is batshit insane. "Tropic Thunder" is one of the Ben Stiller movies that makes dealing with "The Heartbreak Kid" or "Along Came Polly" almost worth it.
"Tropic Thunder" is sort of a movie about making a movie; Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is one of the stars of a film adaptation of a book of the same name, about one man's experiences during the Vietnam War. Speedman is a fading action star, and the rest of the cast is rounded out by Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a critical darling who is also an unspeakably committed method actor, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a crossover rap star who constantly hawks his own merchandise, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a strung-out comedian who makes movies in the vein of "Big Momma's House," and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), an unknown actor. This combination of egos and star-power are a headache for director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who is completely unable to wrangle the actors. He is given the genius idea of shooting guerrilla style and dropping the actors into the jungles of Vietnam, which predictably goes awry.
Now, the idea behind the film is pretty solid, but the execution is damned near flawless. Not only does the humor come from the characters, but the characters are as insane as you'd think a batch of famous actors would be, and then some. But a lot of that rests on the stars' shoulders. I can't immediately think of another film in many years where one of the leads spends the entire film essentially in blackface (that would be Downey, Jr.), another is playing a comedian strung out on heroin (Black), and the third is as dumb as the characters he plays (Stiller), and then not only get away with it, but end up being praised for it, but here we are.
One of the things that really helps is that the actors don't really ever wink to the camera. They're all fully immersed in being dumb and being really aggressive about that (which is a proven comedy formula), and that helps when you end up having to root for these guys even though they'd all seem really awful people on the surface. But you see that these people are behaving in a manner consistent with their personalities, and are not transparently playing that for laughs. You can see this in the scene where Tugg plays with a severed head, trying to convince his castmates that the game is on; it's not a case of Ben Stiller playing with a head because he wants the shock value, it's Tugg playing a character trying to convince his castmates that the head is a prop because he's too dumb to realize that he's holding a dripping, leaking head in his hands. So when Tugg eventually gets in trouble (because of course he's going to), you can't really fault him for doing dumb things. He's a dumb man, he can't help that. But he believes in what he's doing, and that goes a long way.
It's also very difficult to make a movie like this without actually being able to make a movie that looks like this. Parodies can be fantastic because of their seeming amateurishness, but making a movie that looks like a full-on action movie just to be able to make fun of some of the things in it (and this is not a parody of a war film, it's the batch of actors that the actors are playing that are the source of and the butt of pretty much every joke present) is much more subversive. There's a wide range of kinds of movies shown in "Tropic Thunder," and the beginning sequence of faux-trailers that introduce the characters (and this is both succinct and a brilliant way to introduce a series of characters) either has to work like it's real or look completely like trash. And they look legit. The film looks legit. You've got those swooping helicopter shots that show the denseness of the jungle and then a village or something as transition shots (not just once, either), and those aren't even for humorous purposes! It's just that if you make a war movie in the jungle, that shot's going to be in there.
"Tropic Thunder" is so funny it makes me a little angry that there isn't more with these characters. I'd seriously watch any of the movies in the fake trailers, or anything with Tugg Speedman in it at all. I'll probably have to settle for watching "Zoolander" again, and then I'll get mad that "Zoolander 2" isn't out yet. It's times like that I weaken and start to consider re-watching "Meet the Fockers" or "Starsky & Hutch," and when I do, I'll start to get disappointed that they aren't more "Zoolander" or more "Tropic Thunder." That's how Ben Stiller will get you. Every five or six years, he'll do a genius comedy that you just can't dislodge from your head. And then, for the next five or six years, you'll go see what he's been doing, hoping and failing to recapture that magic. And then, right when Ben Stiller feels you start to slip, boom. "Zoolander 2."
4 / 5 - Blu-Ray