August 13, 2008
When it comes to comedies, it's usually a good sign when the laughs start before the movie even begins. The fake trailers shown before Tropic Thunder tell you exactly what you're in for: a raunchy, ridiculously romp that makes you cringe as much as it makes you laugh out loud.
That's right. Against all odds, I found Tropic Thunder to be the funniest comedy of the summer - by far.
Realizing this, I searched for an explanation as the end credits rolled (which happen to be the best of any movie this year). "Third time must have been the charm," I said to my group, citing two recent duds. I thought I'd finally succumbed to idiotic comedy. Soon after, however, I realized that there was actually something different about Tropic Thunder, and it wasn't just the absolutely stunning production design.
Three self-absorbed movie stars are cast in "Tropic Thunder", a Vietnam war movie based on the memoirs of a hook-handed veteran (Nick Nolte). Leading man Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who co-wrote and also directed the movie) is pampered by his agent (Matthew McConaughey), and his last role was in a film that's widely considered to be the worst of all time. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an Academy Award-winning method actor whose preparation for roles would put Daniel Day-Lewis to shame. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a drug-addled comedy star trying to separate himself from "The Fatties", his popular movie franchise about, well, a fat, flatulent family. Add a rookie director, an all-too-enthusiastic explosives expert (Danny McBride), and a nauseating studio head with a God complex (Tom Cruise), and "Tropic Thunder" appears to be doomed from the start. That is, of course, when a decision is made to shoot the film guerrilla style in the middle of the actual jungle and separate the stars from their security blankets. Unfortunately for the cast, there are actual guerrillas in this actual jungle.
If Step Brothers is the immature kid at the playground who steals a megaphone and curses in between making fart noises, Tropic Thunder is the best man giving his speech at a wedding, roasting the groom and telling the jokes that everyone will remember. Calling it a "smart" comedy would seem impossible to defend, but it's a label I'm tempted to use nonetheless. In the mold of Blazing Saddles, the dialogue and characters don't just toe the political correctness line, they stand right on it and stick their tongue out at you, making you feel silly that such a line exists in the first place. Beyond that, it deliciously satirizes Hollywood and skewers the careers of the very people it stars (speaking of which, this might be best work by an ensemble cast all year, and Cruise and Downey, Jr. are especially outstanding).
The potential for being offended is pretty high, but Tropic Thunder mostly covers its bases thanks to the sharp writing of Stiller and his co-writer, the actor Justin Theroux. The characters are, in fact, caricatures; the joke isn't on African-Americans or people with disabilities. It's on the actors. The outcry over the material in Tropic Thunder isn't altogether misguided, but it may be misinformed. People who see two movies a year and know nothing about Hollywood business culture will find it difficult to understand the satire (not to mention the hilarious references to so many other movies).
As much as this is true, however, there are still many scenes and lines that are just plain nasty. People may walk out of Tropic Thunder and head right back to the box office. Some will complain, some will buy tickets to the next screening. I did neither, but I did find myself surprised at how much I was laughing.