Film review by: Witney Seibold
Anyone who has seen Ben Stiller’s other directorial efforts as well as his short-lived sketch comedy TV show, know that he has a streak of darkness in him. Sure, he goes for crotch jokes and cheap satire as frequently as he can, but occasionally he’ll break out with some real-life horror that is not meant to be funny. Remember the spider crawling across Jim Carrey’s face in “The Cable Guy?” Or the multiple betrayals in “Reality Bites?” Or the… well, I guess I can’t fault “Zoolander.”
His newest film, “Tropic Thunder,” is a comedic satire – of Hollywood politics in general, and ego-driven actors in particular – but contains enough gore and hard-edged tragedy to have that ineffable quality that Hollywood studio execs are always touting and rarely nailing: edge. “Tropic Thunder” is a fast-paced, very funny, and actually edgy comedy. It’s not as edgy, perhaps, as the ubiquitous advertising campaign would have you believe, and the fact that Robert Downey, Jr. plays in blackface is not necessarily as shocking as it sounds, but “Tropic Thunder” still manages to be a high-rolling black comedy of enormous proportions.
After a few funny fake previews (for “Scorcher VI,” “The Fatties fart II,” and gay monk artfilm “Satan’s Alley”), we jump into production of high-budget “prestige” Vietnam War film-within-a-film “Tropic Thunder.” The stars of this picture are Tugg Speedman (Stiller), a nearly-has-been action star with more biceps than brains, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a heroin-addicted flameout comedian trying to go dramatic, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a product-hocking rapping sellout, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a nerdy levelheaded supporting man, and Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.) a “serious” Australian method actor (clearly modeled from Russell Crowe) who dyed his skin and got surgery to play a black man.
This film is already over budget and way behind schedule, much to chagrin of the film’s neophyte director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), and the hairy-armed, balding, asshole studio head Les Grossman (a terrific and unrecognizable Tom Cruise). When the lead actors accidentally ruin an expensive special effect shot, Cockburn and the crazy Vietnam vet (and author of the novel on which the film’s screenplay was based) (Nick Nolte), decide to go all Herzog on their asses, and drop them into the real Vietnamese jungles with only hidden cameras and hidden special effects (provided by Danny McBride), to capture their “real fear.”
It’s not long before the actors are lost and alone in the jungle, and a group of very real heroin producers have mistaken them for DEA agents. Now the actors are in real danger. Can their lifetime of playacting help them when they’re in real danger?
In the jungle, the actors discuss their craft in some of the film’s funniest moments. They discuss the dangers of going “full retard,” and talk about the necessity of following The Method, even at the expense of your own true identity/dignity (“I don’t drop character until the DVD commentary” says Lazarus). Portnoy begins to have really serious heroin withdrawals, Chino worries only about the state of his energy drink Booty Sweat, and Speedman goes a little bonkers. Any potential offense at the Caucasian Lazarus playing a black man is offset by the earnest bullshit-detector of Chino, the only real black man in the cast.
There are moments in “Tropic Thunder” (the real film) that are way too broad, mostly involving Stiller’s character. He mugs a lot, shrieks way tom often, and holds onto the prima-donna thing for way too much of the film. When he is asked to reprise Simple Jack, the “retarded” role that Speedman once tried for shot at prestige, Stiller overplays the shtick. It probably would have been funnier if he snapped into that realm of easy-to-act-but-oddly-well-received “retard” acting that pops up in Hollywood from time to time. Remember Edward Norton in “The Score,” who quickly snapped back and forth from his “retard” persona and his real character? I have a feeling most actors can do that.
“Tropic Thunder” is also really violent (hands get blown off, people get blown up, blood splatters across people’s faces), and features a Faustian scene in which Grossman tempts Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey) with wealth over the life of his client. But these dark elements, as I have said, do a lot to shore up the film’s overall fabric, rather than offer us a gory thrill.
My main complaint: “Tropic Thunder” tries really hard to incorporate so many diverse elements, characters, plotlines, and incidents, that after a while everything begins to feel rushed. The pure-action climax is still clear and exciting, but perhaps the film would have been stronger as a whole with a slightly more sedate pace. It already runs 107 minutes as is, however, so perhaps more of the film would have merely sunk it.