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Tropic Thunder (2008) – Movie Review

Tropic Thunder movie poster art

Written by: Etan Cohen, Ben Stiller & Justin Theroux, based on a story by Stiller & Theroux
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan

My Advice: Matinee

Tropic Thunder is Hollywood’s latest big budget war film and it means different things to different people. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) sees it as a way to revitalize his career after his signature franchise has cooled off (literally and figuratively) and his attempt at Oscar-bait backfired in a big way. Kirk Lazarus (Downey) sees it as a path towards his sixth Oscar. Jeff Portnoy (Black) sees it as the thing most comedians do: go for drama as a way to get legitimized as an actor. Director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is a first-time helmer and sees the film as a way to launch him into the big leagues. But they ever expected it to become much more (and much less) than a Hollywood film–which it does, when Cockburn decides to make it real for his actors in order to save the troubled production.

[ad#longpost]Thus is the stage set for Tropic Thunder, the smartest dumb comedy of the year. What the hell do I mean by that? I mean when you’ve got a rap star named Alpa Chino (Jackson) who’s hocking an energy drink called “Booty Sweat,” you know you’ve got a lot of lowest common denominator humor in store. But instead of it being overwhelming, not to mention unfunny like other Stiller projects have been (There’s Something About Mary–I know, I know, I’m in the minority on that one), it’s there but it’s not the main focus. The focus is instead on Hollywood and primarily acting and The Process of Acting. Discussions of the craft between Speedman and Lazarus and Lazarus critiquing a later performance by Speedman delivered under duress–surprisingly intelligent and, yes, funny. All that and the script has some surprises, which are even more surprising when this looks like just another dumb comedy, which are not known for trying to throw curveballs. (And there’s nothing wrong with dumb comedies, just for the record. I like turning my brain off at the cinema just like everybody else.)

This mishmash of intelligence and fart jokes works better than it has any right to, partly because the material from the scribes is so good, but mostly, I think, because the leads are so strong. Just when you think a character is going to be a one-note wonder and you feel disappointed, something happens to draw you out of it. The most striking example of this involves Black and his character’s, ahem, jelly bean addiction. But even characters like Danny McBride’s insane pyro tech and Matthew McConaughey’s agent, which ordinarily would be window dressing, are given things to do. Outside of the jungle the true riot belongs to Tom Cruise, startingly recognizable as Les Grossman. I’ve come to the conclusion that if Cruise wanted to do nothing but play character actor parts for the rest of his career, I’d be happy as hell. The amount of cameos are also pretty amazing, and pretty commendable as well. And they’re the icing on the hilarity cake.

Having seen the fake trailers and the fake docu about the making of the fake movie, I can’t wait to see what the real DVD has to offer. Ideally? A commentary from the three leads in character. Regardless, the movie is pretty damn funny. And worth a matinee. Take some friends to the cinema and catch it for as cheap as you can manage, but do catch it.

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