Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller/United States 2008

While cognizant of the fact that the year is little more than half over, I nonetheless feel confident in proclaiming Tropic Thunder the funniest film of the year. Tropic Thunder is one of those rare films that is both smart and silly, equal parts gifted satire and laugh-till-it-hurts farce. I have to give credit where credit is due. Ben Stiller—whom I’ve ridiculed (and not entirely without reason) for many years—has made a modern comic masterpiece.

Stiller (who stars, directed, co-wrote and co-produced) is Tugg Speedman, a fading action star who has signed on to “the most expensive war movie ever made” in an effort to save his flagging career. Joining him in the cast of this Vietnam epic are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a coked-up comedian known best for gross out films and fart jokes; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) a rap star turned actor; acting newbie Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel); and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a five-time Academy Award winning Australian so into “method acting” that he has surgically darkened his skin to play a black man.

When the film’s producer, British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), lands in hot water thanks to his self-absorbed yet insecure actors, he decides to take the advice of his technical adviser (Nick Nolte) and explosives expert (Pineapple Express’ Danny McBride) and drops the coddled cast deep in the Southeast Asian jungle where hidden cameras will capture the action, guerrilla style. Of course, nothing goes according to plan. While Tugg’s mollifying agent (Matthew McConaughey) grows increasingly anxious, the squad of actors find themselves embroiled in an all-too real war with sadistic narco-terrorists. Not all of them will make it out of the jungle alive.

Stiller has wrangled together a spectacular ensemble cast. Each and every one of the characters shine. And yet two stand out above the rest.

Since I’ve already gone out on a limb proclaiming Tropic Thunder the funniest film of the year, let me inch out even further and insist that Robert Downey, Jr. unquestionably deserves an Oscar for his performance. He won’t win one—comedy performances are notoriously overlooked come spring—but that doesn’t change the fact that his performance is brilliant. Downey completely vanishes into his role. Spouting black power language one moment and hysterically accurate film criticism the next, Downey’s is one of the great comic performances of recent memory. Is it also racist? I’ll let you decide.

As for the other performance, do you remember when it was popular to vilify Tom Cruise? Well that day has officially come to end. Prepare to be dazzled by the beleaguered superstar’s cameo appearance as a foul-mouthed media baron. That is, if you can recognize him.

Nothing is safe from Tropic Thunder’s uproarious skewering. The film mocks everything from pampered actors, narcissistic agents, media tycoons and movies in general, especially classic war movies. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Francis Ford Coppola or Oliver Stone see this film.) While these are certainly broad, stationary targets, it’s the precision and consistency of Stiller and his co-writers that makes the film work, joke after joke. Be sure to get to the theater early. Those official-looking concession ads and movie trailers before the movie starts are, in fact, hilarious elements of the film.

Tropic Thunder is not a perfect comedy. It can be all over the place at times, drags in certain sections, and doesn’t seem to know when it’s taking a joke too far. But for every criticism there are far more things to praise—the gallows humor, the pop-culture jesting, the cinematic criticism, the over-the-top explosive summer fare, the sublime acting—that by the end of the film, the scale tips completely in Tropic Thunder’s favor.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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