August 13, 2008

300 Words (x2) About: Tropic Thunder

Check your morals at the door for the guiltiest pleasure of the year...

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.


  1. I get this on the 5th of September (I was away on camp when the press screening was held), and I am looking forward to it.

  2. Hehe, ironically, it sounded like your camp experience was similar to the one in the movie.

  3. Good to hear.

    Unrelated question: is it just me, or do you consciously avoid your review template for more commercial films? It seems as though indies and docs get the formal treatment, whereas wide releases typically get the 300 Words treatment. Just wondering why that is...

  4. You've made a very good case for it in your fine 300 word series framework, but I remained skeptical. Still, it has its support in the professional ranks, and others share your enthusiasm. As always, the proof will be in the pudding!

  5. I liked this, but found it lagging behind PINEAPPLE EXPRESS in nearly every way. I found PINEAPPLE much funnier. I laughed consistently throughout that one...but found myself chuckling quietly throughout TROPIC THUNDER, and only laughing out loud occasionally.

    Not bad at all, but not as funny as I expected.

  6. I can't wait for this. I'm wanting to rescue the sub-par summer I've had at the movies.

    After reading your 300 words, I might have to cancel my planned Saturday afternoon viewing and take in a early evening screening tomorrow after work!

  7. Fox is right ... this has been a horrible summer for me at the movies. I'm looking forward to seeing this one, maybe this weekend.

    Fine piece, Daniel!

  8. Good question, Fletch. It's honestly about what comes more naturally. You're not the first one to notice that I'm slowly moving away from my original format (and my word counts are increasingly way more than 300). For the commercial blockbusters I guess I feel like they get so many reviews written about them that my in-depth versions aren't necessary. Hence the docs and indies.

    The fact that I can't deny, however, is that I'm soon probably going to stop limiting myself to any kind of "format" for every review. Part of the learning process in this whole thing, I guess. In the last year I've definitely learned more about the challenges of writing about movies.

    Right, Sam, and thanks. I was still a little surprised to see its RT Top Critic percentage so high...

    Crazy, we can have the exact same reaction to opposite movies. I guess I just enjoyed the characters in TT more than PE. Even Danny McBride - I preferred his TT character more.

    Wow, Fox - if you've noticed we have similar taste I hope I don't let you down! As always, come on back if you have thoughts to share afterwards.

    Thanks, Rick. The summer comedies have really been pretty weak in my opinion, so this was a combination of surprise and, well, actually funny comedy.

  9. I'm with you to the tee, Daniel. Step Brothers and Pineapple Express both sapped my will to live for different reasons, the former being the worst offender. But I saw this last night and loved it. You've provided a great analysis of why this one worked for you when the others didn't, but I came up with a much more superficial reason: there were no man-children with arrested development issues anywhere to be seen. Sure they're all man-children to one extent or another, but they are decidedly NOT the Apatow kind, and I was more thankful for that than I could have possibly imagined. I'm so burned out on the Apatow machine that any major Hollywood comedy that even skirts his model an inch feels like a breath of fresh air.

    And you're right - the best end credits of any film of the year. I have a newfound respect and admiration for Tom Cruise. Could this be the beginning of a career resurrection?

  10. Nice, Evan. I tried not to dig too much at Apatow because he's still responsible for some pretty good comedy, but come on - 5-6 movies a year?! I don't think Ben Stiller's any kind of comedic genius, but there's something to be said for actually "working" or "spending time" on these projects instead of just churning them out. It sure showed in TT - down to the last detail, including those credits.

    Career resurrection for Cruise? You're talking to a big-time Cruise The Actor apologist, my friend, so his excellence hardly surprised me. One of my favorite actors.

  11. I will take the fifth and will refuse to comment as my boss at Movie Zeal liked the film, and that's that.

  12. Haha, well it's free range here, Sam. I doubt your job is at stake, but I won't speak for Evan...

  13. I know I've said this before, but its interesting how subjective comedy is. Step Brothers was irritating, Pineapple Express was tolerable but instantly forgettable, but Tropic Thunder simply made me laugh. Part of it is what Evan says about man children, but I enjoyed the layer of satire, though I wish it had been sharper.

  14. I laughed harder than I have in a long time at the fake trailers at the beginning of this movie, but I felt it got less and less funny as it went just seemed to be losing focus -- did the cocaine farmers really have to be as dumb as the actors? I do agree that it's probably the funniest comedy of the summer, and I would recommend it to people.

    By the way, I have to say I really like the "300-words" and "graded" review formats...I definitely understand not wanting to be limited, but there's also something to be said for having a unique format and/or a shtick to your blog. You might consider just creating a new format whenever you feel like it, in order to maintain your blog's unique feel. :) My two cents.

  15. You've sold me on that idea of subjectivity, Craig. Not that it's a new thought, but it didn't really hit home for me until I started reviewing comedies. Still, it's hard for me to understand how some people don't enjoy some of my favorite comedies. TT isn't one of them, though.

    Thanks, Luke. I'm clearly all over the place with my review formats, but in my head I'm moving in a logical direction, and that's toward a hybrid of the two: writing freestyle while also grading individual elements.

    I will admit that the humor came in fits and starts for me, but the first and last half hour were consistently funny for me. Plus, it went out with a bang - literally.


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