Tropic Thunder (2008) Movie Review

As a rule, I avoid comedies like the plague. Either they are too low-brow for my tastes, relying on flatulence or gross sexual situations for laughs, or they cannot sustain their humor. Comedies also tend to be dominated by flavor-of-the-month performers, usually someone who was on “Saturday Night Live,” who churn out one film after another until they’ve saturated the market. Just a few of the offenders include Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Owen Wilson, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, and Ben Stiller. Despite my aversion to Stiller, I have seen a fair number of his films. Not because of him, though. He just happened to be in the cast. This is the same reason, I saw “Tropic Thunder.” Stiller may have co-written it, directed it, and starred in it, but for me the draw was Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. Early buzz, too, has been favorable, with “Newsweek,” “E!” and “Rolling Stone” hailing it as this summer’s funniest comedy.

“Tropic Thunder” satirizes war films, Hollywood, and the music industry. Taking a leaf out of Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse” rule book, it begins with a few faux trailers that introduce us to the main players. You have Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a hip hop star whose song “Booty Sweat” has inspired an energy drink. He spends much of his time hawking that and some candy bars called Bust-A-Nut. (You can actually buy a 24-pack of “Booty Sweat” on for $44.99!) Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action superstar who has made a career for himself starring in the post-apocalyptic “Scorcher” and its many sequels. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedian who has donned many a fat suit to star in “The Fatties,” a sort of “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” but with more fart jokes. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), a five-time Oscar award winning Method actor who is, off-screen, a bit of an Australian bad boy. And newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

All five men are brought together to make a Vietnam War picture that is inspired by true events. Behind the camera is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), a British director who has to endure his fair share of problems. Not only is the film way over budget and behind schedule, but his cast members are also, for the most part, pampered prima donnas. To make matters worse, his special effects guy (Danny McBride) screws up and detonates the on-location jungle, setting it ablaze. When the studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) threatens to shut the production down, Cockburn takes advice from war veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), who tells him to load up his cast, head into the back and beyond, and shoot the film guerrilla style. But then disaster strikes, and the actors find themselves lost and alone in hostile territory. Only Lazarus knows that they are in the shit. Speedman, who is marginally smarter than a turnip, believes that the show must go on.

I am probably in the minority here, but I found “Tropic Thunder” funny for about the first 15 or 20 minutes and then was just waiting for it to end. The trailers were clever, sending up films such as “Armageddon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and, as I’ve said, “Nutty Professor II.” “Tropic Thunder” itself satirized overly violent war films, such as “Platoon” and “Apocalypse Now.” In fact, if you know your movie trivia, you will catch a lot of pokes at the film industry, with references ranging from “A Cry in the Dark” to “I Am Sam.” Unfortunately, most of the comedy comes from your bog standard topics – farts, drug use, explicit sex references, and homosexuality. If that’s your bag, you will stand up and cheer for “Tropic Thunder.” With the exception of some very funny, very gross jokes involving the wounded, I found most of it pretty repetitive, derivative and unoriginal.

The film recently came under fire from disability groups for its use of the word “retard,” and even though the producers tried to downplay its usage, the film does more than just use the word several times. Trying to go “legit” and win an Oscar, Speedman starred in “Simple Jack,” which is about a wide-eyed, big-toothed, stuttering mentally deficient character. As Lazarus tells him, the reason he didn’t win an award was because unlike Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump” and Sean Penn “I Am Sam,” he made the mistake of going “full retard.” And just so we get the full flavor of his performance, we see clips from the film, and later, Speedman has to perform it live. It’s not that I’m a PC person, but I’m tired of the joke. Stiller showed us how funny “dumb” people were in “Zoolander.” We get it, Stiller, move on.

I think what irritated me most about “Tropic Thunder” was the fact that it had Black, one of the most manic, unpredictable guys in the business; and Downey Jr., one of the wittiest, most intelligent, and neither was used to his full potential. The way Black’s character was written, anyone could have been cast. Anyone. What a waste. And as for Downey Jr., he undergoes an amazing transformation. He starts out kind of hot with ice blue contacts and blond hair and then his character subjects himself to “experimental” pigmentation surgery to become a realistic “black man.” In both cases, he is almost unrecognizable. He could very well receive an Oscar nod for his performance. My main complaint with his performance was the fact that I couldn’t understand 90 percent of what he was saying. Either the sound was bad or he mumbled too much, and Stiller failed to notice. But the biggest travesty of all is the fact that Stiller believes he’s funnier and more talented than anyone else in his cast, otherwise why would he give himself so much screen time? What a narcissist. Stiller is a one-note performer who should recognize his limitations.

I will say one good thing about “Tropic Thunder.” Cruise is fantastic. He’s on screen maybe 10 minutes, but you’ll remember every one of them. Wearing a bald cap, glasses, some padding, and perhaps some extra hair on his chest, he’s a shouting, foul-mouthed maniac who doesn’t take crap from anyone. Think Frank T. J. Mackey, his character in “Magnolia,” but make him significantly less attractive and 1,000 times slimier. That’s Les Grossman. I’ve never really liked Cruise – on screen or off – and certainly didn’t think he would go to such lengths for a character. At several points in the film, he even dances to hip hop tunes. If you can’t find his scenes on YouTube, buy a ticket for “Tropic Thunder.” I’m sure Cruise’s antics will pepper many workplace conversations.

Ben Stiller (director) / Etan Cohen, Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux (screenplay)
CAST: Robert Downey Jr. … Kirk Lazarus
Jack Black … Jeff Portnoy
Jay Baruchel … Kevin Sandusky
Brandon T. Jackson … Alpa Chino
Ben Stiller … Tugg Speedman
Steve Coogan … Damien Cockburn
Bill Hader … Studio Executive Rob Slolom
Nick Nolte … Four Leaf Tayback

Buy Tropic Thunder on DVD