Is it possible for a movie to be too "inside?" Can its farcical focus on the very industry that supports it have the ability to reach beyond the studios and the suits to become a memorable mainstream hit? That's obviously what Ben Stiller
is hoping for with his new showbiz satire Tropic Thunder. As much an attack on the pompous and privileged stars that are the center of contemporary cinema as it is on the bloated and often unwieldy way they earn their keep, this may be the first popcorn comedy that plainly -- and repeatedly -- bites the hackneyed hand that feeds it.
For three Hollywood heavyweights, the film adaptation of Vietnam vet Four Leaf Tayback's (Nick Nolte
) war bestseller is rapidly spiraling out of control. Action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is having a hard time digging up the requisite emotion, while Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.
) actually has some "controversial" plastic surgery to up the authenticity. Pulling up the rear -- literally -- is fat funnyman Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black
). After appearing in a collection of crude yet profitable comedies, the borderline junkie wants to go legit. Along with rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson
) and bit player Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel
), these celebrities fall victim to Tayback and director Damien Cockburn's (Steve Coogan
) scheme to add realism to the project. The plan? Take everyone into the Asian jungle and shoot it, guerilla style. The problem? A deadly drug cartel. Article continues below
Tropic Thunder is one aggressive mofo of a Tinseltown slam. If it weren't created by certified A-list talents trading on both their reputations and their reasons for being, it would be career suicide for all involved. With chutzpah the size of Central Casting and more than enough laughs to keep the uninitiated happy, this clever combination of spoof and infotainment autopsy will probably soar over the heads of your average moviegoer. This is not to say that one needs some special knowledge to enjoy Downey's amiable minstrel show, or Black's heroin-withdrawal wildness. Yet the more you understand the mechanics of Hollywood and how films are financed and controlled, the greater your appreciation of what Stiller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is after. You may not laugh more, but you'll definitely sync up with the film's more insular attributes.
Most of the pre-publicity has focused on two varying aspects of the production. One is the character of Kirk Lazarus and his decision to go blackface to play the platoon leader. While never wholly offensive, it was wise to add Jackson's hip-hop voice of rap reason to the company. He keeps the hate crimes to a bare minimum, while offering his own damning cultural deconstruction of what's going on. The other element is the supposed cameo by a famed Scientologist with a questionable middle-aged career arc. Well, let's settle the score once and for all -- Tom Cruise
literally steals every scene he is in (and there are many) as the foul-mouthed financier Les Grossman. Readily recognizable in a hairy fat suit, he proves more than adept at high concept comedy.
Oddly enough, the most compelling presence here is "FOA" (friend of Apatow) Baruchel. Required to do most of the expositional heavy lifting, he is great as the newbie tossed into a self-centered mega-superstar mix. With Stiller proving he can easily handle such outsized material (the movie begins with four of the best trailer/ad parodies ever!) and excellent assistance from Nolte, Coogan, and a surfer dude delightful Matthew McConaughey
(as Stiller's agent), Tropic Thunder is a good time gutbuster. While not as strident as The Player, or as psycho-philosophical as The Stunt Man, this remains an unapologetically brazen celluloid slur -- that is, of course, if you get what it's going for.