I was busy in Chicago this weekend and fell behind on my moviegoing. Luckily John was back in theaters and caught Tropic Thunder. Here’s his review, after the jump.
CAST: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise
DIRECTED BY: Ben Stiller
SYNOPSIS: After an expensive action sequence is ruined on the set of a Vietnam war epic, the blame is placed on the inexperienced director (Steve Coogan). However the blame actually belongs to the feuding leads on the film: frustrated action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) and the extremely committed method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.). After incurring the wrath of the studio, The director conspires with the Vietnam vet / original novel writer (Nolte) to ditch the film’s five stars into the thick of Vietnam to create a sense of unity. Naturally, things go awry, and now these five actors are on their own to face off with a heroin ring and themselves.
ANALYSIS: Throughout the year, when Hollywood, spews out garbage on a consistent basis, I’m always left with the desire to give Hollywood swift kick in the butt with a steel-tipped boot. These feelings, however, were cast aside due to the continuing cinematic quality of the summer of 2008. What makes Tropic Thunder such a surprise is that I forgot entirely that there are things about Hollywood that tick me off, and this movie rips into every single one of those things.
The most important thing this film attacks is the clashing of egos between actors. Stiller’s character is treating this film like any other hackneyed action film he’s done, and is set with employing the same old tricks from his prior action action series. Whereas Downey, Jr.’s character is an extreme method actor (totally ripping on people like Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Dustin Hoffman, etc.) who has a tendency to push himself so far into the performance that he strays from the script on a frequent basis. Though that looks great on film, it plays serious hell with his co star, who prefers to stick to what he knows and never tries to go beyond. This type of drama is totally commonplace on both stage and screen. The stars always show resentment towards the celebrated actors because they tend to feel inadequate around them and thus always feel the desire to show them up. Even when Downey, Jr.’s character is offering solid advice to Stiller, Stiller shirks it because he thinks taking said advice is a sign of weakness.
Stiller has always been great at playing self absorbed, albeit insecure, characters and he uses that to full effect in this movie. He nails the resentment his character has towards his colleague. Especially when Stiller tries to take the arthouse route and having it blow up in his face. It’s totally laughable in Hollywood when a typecast actor tries to break away from his routine. They think that all they have to do is play a character that is totally opposite their repertoire, and if they milk it through exaggeration, they’ll get the Oscar (Listen up Sean Penn). Stiller’s performance displays these traits perfectly, and it’s hysterical to see what his character has to go through to find that emotional center to ascend from common movie stardom to being a full-fledged actor.
Most of the daring aspects of the satire in this film lie in the character of Kirk Lazarus. He is the ultimate portrayal of method acting gone wrong. We constantly read on imdb and other places where the more prestigious actors go beyond the call of duty to play a character, so much so that the actor becomes disillusioned as to his or her true identity. Lazarus goes to such ridiculous lengths that he breaks a taboo that no one should ever break. Downey, Jr. follows up his superhero success with Iron Man by taking a massive risk in playing a character that would not only make others actors cringe, but also dare to take a shot at some of our most beloved actors, who are notorious for burying themselves in their character. To see him trading shots with Brandon T. Jackson’s character is especially riotous owing to the inevitable backlash that would come from what Kirk Lazarus is doing. Downey, Jr. has reached a new zenith this past summer and I love that he’s finally been getting the attention he deserves.
As for Jack Black’s character, he is totally channeling actors like John Belushi and Chris Farley–heavyset actors who get their bread and butter by exploiting themselves in stereotypical comedies consisting of a multitude of fart jokes and ridiculous pratfralls. All the while, they are consuming drugs like they’re candy and making like freight trains about to crash into a mountain at 100 mph. Black’s scenes aren’t really as involving as the stuff with Stiller or Downey, Jr., but nevertheless he is always a welcome presence in most of the movies I see him in. I just notice how he’s got his own troubles and it never seems to involve any of the other characters. Fortunately, that doesn’t stop his material in the film from being absolutely hilarious.
Since I like acknowledging new talent, I have to acknowledge newcomer Jay Baruchel as the good natured newcomer who is in way over his head. I was actually quite surprised as to how much emphasis was put on his character, and how in many respects he was the glue for many of the scenes. Same goes to Brandon T. Jackson, whose scenes with Downey, Jr. are comedy gold due to his resentment towards Lazarus, because Lazarus scored the role that Jackson’s character was aiming for. Having these experiences in Community Theater made it easy for me to empathize. Baruchel and Jackson really added some dimension to what could have potentially been just a star-driven comedy.
Speaking of stars, the cameos in this film are insane! It’s blatantly clear that the desire to rip Hollywood a new one isn’t just limited to Stiller and Company. Many cameos include Tyra Banks, Amy Stiller, Lance Bass, and Jon Voight. However the cameo that will have you in stitches is Tobey Maguire’s, which has him in a phony trailer with Downey, Jr., and you’ll find yourself laughing to death when you remember that these are two Marvel superheroes.
Elsewhere, we’ve got Nick Nolte as the nutball Vietnam Vet playing it as if his character from The Thin Red Line became creative consultant and got a little too into the job. Then you’ve got Matthew McConaughey, who delivers laughs aplenty as Stiller’s totally oblivious, yet fiercely loyal agent. But the one who earns massive karma points is Tom Cruise! This is exactly what the man needs after the recent media lashings he has taken from the whole scientology debacle, his marriage, and Lions For Lambs sucking. It’s was just a breath of fresh air to see him explode with aggressive comedic brilliance, and do things in this film that go beyond dancing around the house in his briefs. I won’t get into specifics; just take my word for it.
In this closing month of the summer of 2008 it’s great to see that we will be ending it on a high note. That and after spending May, June, and July getting bombarded by greatness, we can be assured that August at least had something to offer as well. Stiller and his co-writer Justin Theroux pulled no punches, barred no holds, and took advantage of every opportunity. These are the most important things to do when it comes to great comedy, and more importantly, great satire.
FINAL GRADE: A-