Tropic Thunder

    Before we get to the movie, I’d just like to say what a great summer it’s been. For almost ten straight weeks from May through August there has been a big release and usually it hasn’t disappointed. We’ve had two immensely entertaining new classics in the Superhero genre, Iron Man and The Dark Knight, one surprisingly good entry into that same genre, Hancock, a steady entry into a much beloved series, Indiana Jones, and three disappointments that were still watchable, Incredible Hulk, Hellboy II, and The X-Files.  Every week, I’ve left the multiplex happy, entertained, and glad to be a geek. I read one review recently that complained about blockbuster overload. The reviewer wrote that there were so many big films in so short a time that the constant hype dulled the senses.
    Ah, there’s nothing sweeter than the whining of serious film critics.
    Anyway on to Tropic Thunder. In this film Hollywood turns its satiric eye on itself. Or more specifically, on the star making process that fuels all the blockbusters that we’ve enjoyed this summer. Ben Stiller, who produced and directed the film, places three alpha actors into the middle of a real conflict. Stiller himself, plays Tugg Speedman, an aging action star, who wants to prove that he can star in a drama and win an academy award. Robert Downey Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a serious actor, who’s won five Oscars already and who has a reputation for disappearing into his roles. For this one he’s had his skin dyed so he can play an African-American Sergeant. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comic actor with a drug problem, who’s also trying to prove that he can expand his range into drama. These three are in Southeast Asia shooting a film called Tropic Thunder, which is based on a true story set during the Vietnam war. It’s not going very well. The novice director, played by Steve Coogan, can’t rein in his egomaniacal cast and he’s behind schedule and over budget.
    Desperate, he gets the idea to set up a bunch of hidden cameras in the jungle, drop his fractious cast into the middle of it and have them improvise the script. This backfires when they stumble into the territory of drug ring, who’s soldiers have real guns and grenades. Even after seeing the director step on a land mine, these actors are so self absorbed it takes them awhile to figure out that what they’re experiencing is not part of the movie.
   We are all, I suppose, unique mixtures of ego and insecurity. This must be amplified about a million times in the pampered, yet high pressure world of movie stars. All three of these guys are self absorbed to the point of cluelessness and yet none of them have a very good self image. This is what Stiller is lampooning and he is occasionally on target.
    Unfortunately, the tone of the picture is wildly inconsistent. I think the problem is that Stiller literally has comedy in his genes and he can’t resist the urge to go broad. When they show scenes of him playing his character’s previous effort at Oscar bait, a developmentally disabled man named Simple Jack, the performance is way overdone, which is fine in the flashbacks to the film, (it is, after all supposed to be one of the worst films ever made) but when the drug smugglers make him do it live, well actually I guess the whole situation is a little over the top.
    Despite that, the performances are pretty good. The three leads are funny and vulnerable. The supporting roles are good too.  Brandon T. Jackson plays rapper turned actor Alpa Chino, who keeps wondering why the best role for an African American in the movie went to a white man. Jay Baruchel plays Kevin Sandusky, a smart young nerd in one of his first roles.
    Tropic Thunder is good enough to hold your interest, even if it’s a little uneven. I also got the feeling that there were a lot of Hollywood in jokes that I wasn’t getting. I’d love to know who Tom Cruise was basing his character on. But there’s still plenty here to laugh at for those of us not in the industry.


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August 2008
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