The most expensive war movie ever green-lit by a Hollywood studio is in trouble, having suffered massive delays and a budget that’s spiraling out of control. Featuring a cast of some of the biggest heavyweights in the industry, the troubled production of Tropic Thunder is about to undergo a reality-check as a means to salvage the costly production from reaching Ishtar-like proportions. Action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) joins method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr) and comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and others leading the charge in the fictional film within a film Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s first directorial work since the underrated Zoolander and the most brazen attack on Hollywood since last week’s National Enquirer.
An ensemble piece through and through, the best moments in Tropic Thunder hit hardest when the cast is stripped of their comfort zones and this is fertile territory for Ben Stiller to mine the best from the players. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a Sylvester Stallone-type who’s series of action epics (Scorcher 1 – VI) have grown stale and thanks to a misguided trek into Oscar-bait playing a mentally-challenged farmboy, he’s out to reaffirm his A-lister status. Despite writing and directing, its ironic that Stiller’s role should be the least interesting of the group, although a late-showing of his live theatrical performance was definitely a highlight.
Black, coming off a career-best with the animated Kung Fu Panda, is sadly underused here as flatulent actor Jeff “Fatts” Portnoy (think Eddie Murphy post-Nutty Professor), a heroin-addicted comedian trying to distance himself from a successful string of fat-suit comedies. His several rants about his ‘jellybeans’ and going cold turkey is definitely fun stuff, although I could die a happy man never having to see him in his underwear again. Too much for these eyes, thank you.
Nearly all the pre-release publicity has been squarely on the recently reactivated shoulders of Robert Downey Jr., who thanks to Iron Man is having the best year of his cinematic career. It’d be a mistake to call his portrayal of 5-time Academy Award winner (and Russell Crowe knock) Kirk Lazarus as blackface, as the film (and actor) are far too smart for that sort of silliness. A dedicated method actor who delves so far into his characters he might get lost, Lazarus undergoes a skin-darkening medical procedure to accurately play the lead role in the film – a non-subtle mix of blaxploitation and Lou Gossett Jr. if I ever saw one.
But it would be unfair to describe this as a white man playing a black man’s role, as anyone who’s keen on the stereotypical roles given to some black actors can attest. Rather, Downey Jr. (or Lazarus) is playing the ideal of the perceived black man. Spouting ebonics and quoting The Jeffersons, its only through the ‘authentic’ black on set (Brandon T. Jackson, playing rapper Alpa Chino – say it quick and think of Scarface) that his shenanigans are called out. Its an extraordinary role that’s far more complex than you might think, as the American actor (Downey Jr.) plays an Australian actor (Lazarus) playing an African-American (Sgt. Osiris). He’s so in character that when re masquerades as a Chinese-speaking drug dealer, he speaks his Chinese with the same ebonics-laced accent he gives Osiris. Listen closely and you’ll notice when he stumbles out of character (Osiris), he’ll descend into his ‘native’ Australian accent for a few brief moments. Amazing work from an amazing actor.
Speaking of amazing, Tropic Thunder’s most ingenious choice was to not have Downey Jr. share any screen time with the absolute and mind-boggling work here by (surprise) Tom Cruise as the grotesque and offensive studio-head Les Grossman. Like Downey, Cruise undergoes a complete metamorphosis and not only creates the film’s most insipid of characters, but hand-down the funniest and most poignant. Fat and balding, it took me a few moments to realize that Grossman’s body was indeed phallus-shaped and while this may suggest his personality, the superb make-up and costume help Cruise liberate and self-mock his own celebrity in ways that will surely cut the deepest and most memorably of all the film’s ambitions. You’ve never seen him quite like this (at least twice as offensive as his role in Magnolia), and its only appropriate that his hip-hop swagger that leads the film’s credits (stay for them) as his character will most likely be the only thing people will be talking about when its over. Yes, Cruise is officially cool again.
The rest of the film is populated with so many familiar faces that you’d think you were watching the Academy Awards (and you will be), but the real standouts are the fun cameos by Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s TIVO-obsessed agent, Nick Nolte as bat-guano crazy “Four Leaf” Tayback and writer of the original Tropic Thunder novel, and geeky Jay Baruchel as the geeky (and most prepared) actor working alongside the monster egos. Steve Coogan is typically excellent as first-time director Damien Cockburn (gotta love these names), although his role is criminally short.
When the actor’s hit their marks, things work. Unfortunately, there’s so much reliance on prop comedy and plenty of story-arcs that seem to get lost in the shuffle that the film sometimes feels a bit stressed out and ready to buckle. This is almost always a problem with high-concept and effects-driven comedies, and precisely why there’s so few of them that are effective. Stiller (as both star and director) is always at his absolute best when crafting low-grade characters (Zoolander, Mr. Fury), but even better when stepping out of the way to let the funnier stuff speak for itself. When he manages to keep the pieces in place, there’s no shortage of thoughtful laughs and terrifically pointed commentary. But seeing the cream of the Hollywood elite so readily rock their breadbasket is worth every bad joke and misplaced skit, especially in this ugly new world of tabloid reporting and overload of pop-culture trash. It may be a bit too insider for some, but those who get the joke will laugh the hardest of them all.
Aside from the two exemplary turns by Downey Jr. and Cruise, however, I’m not sure if the shelf life for Tropic Thunder will be as long and hearty as some may think. Me thinks that apart from the wonderful excess of vulgarity and abundance of familiar faces, the skewering of Hollywood’s most sacred of lambs might whizz by a bit too quickly for most viewers hoping for a bit more slapstick with their shtick. The cast is huge and the jokes are fun when they hit, but ultimately its a series of great set-ups and so-so work at pulling them (mostly off) off. Its broken record time, but most will come to see Downey Jr. and leave absolutely in love with Tom Cruise all over again. How’s that for a box-office shake and bake? Still a great time for those in the know, and one of the better comedies this year.
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