It doesn't happen often these days. Comedies just aren't good enough. Smart enough. Funny enough. Strange enough. Or determined enough to stick to their guns.
When all of the elements align, when the comedy works, I find myself thinking about funny moments days later, laughing and smiling.
This was the case with "Tropic Thunder", the new film directed by Ben Stiller, co-written by Stiller, Justin Theroux (an actor who has appeared in "Mulholland Drive" and HBO's "Six Feet Under") and Etan Cohen, and starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise and Matthew McConnaughey.
Every time I thought about the film, I remembered some joke and started laughing again. And it occurred to me: "Tropic Thunder" is that rare thing, a near great comedy.
This review will be difficult to write, it always is harder to write a review on good films, because you don't want to reveal too much and let the viewers experience as much as possible for themselves without spoiling any of the surprises.
Three of Hollywood's biggest stars - Speedman (Stiller), the action hero with "Scorcher I – VI" under his belt, Kirk Lazarus (Downey, Jr.) an Australian with five Oscars on the mantel and Portnoy (Black), the star of the hugely popular "The Fatties" series of films (think "The Nutty Professor") - are brought together by first time director, Damien (Steve Coogan) to star in "Tropic Thunder", a big-budget war film based on the memoirs of a Vietnam Vet (Nolte). But Damien is way out of his league and the studio executive (Tom Cruise) chastises him in front of the entire crew for missing an expensive shot, costing millions and delaying their schedule. Damien decides to take the actors into the jungle, to shoot everything guerrilla style and things soon go very wrong. The actors have to become the soldiers they are portraying in order to make it out of the jungle alive.
"Tropic Thunder" is a very un-PC comedy. Is this a bad thing? Maybe. But in this film all of the un-PC comments, ideas and actions are meant to give further evidence of the actors' feelings, motivations, and lives, showing how screwed up these people are because they live in a bubble surrounded by people giving them whatever they want because they make a lot of money.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Lazarus, an Australian actor who is so into his method acting he goes through with a controversial medical procedure to make him a black man, because he is playing a black man in "Tropic Thunder". Downey Jr. is almost brilliant in this role. Of course, white actors in black face are something that has long ago been demeaned as racist and is, thankfully, not a common practice in this day and age. So why is it OK for Downey Jr. to do this in this film? Because it helps paint a picture of the lengths this actor will go to for his art. Lazarus is such a method actor that he clearly put in many hours of research into role and this research frequently appears throughout the film. Throughout, he talks with a deeper, American accented voice, a voice he probably believes a black man should have. And he is so consistent, it becomes clear that actor thought long and hard about his character. Lazarus and Downey Jr. both. In fact, when Lazarus is speaking to some Vietnamese people, he speaks to them in Chinese using the same accent. When he tries to comfort a 'fellow soldier', a real black man, he begins quoting something that sounds very familiar and the other actor immediately identifies it, calling Lazarus on it.
Lazarus' method acting is what is giving Speedman a problem in the first place. In their first big scene together, Lazarus is dropping crocodile tears and Speedman is unable to muster a wet eye even though his character has just "lost both hands". When they start quibbling, Damien misses his big pyrotechnics shot and the production loses a lot of money, leading to the public reaming by the studio executive.
Stiller is very good as Speedman, a young actor who happened to land a big hit with "Scorcher", an action film set on a post-Apocalyptic Earth, whose character, Scorcher, is charged with saving the people still on the planet and spouting taglines like "Is it hot in here?" just as he shoots his flame thrower across the villains. Even though Speedman's films have made more money, and he is the bigger star, Lazarus has earned more Oscars, so Speedman is jealous and nervous around the other actor. This leads to the big breakdown while they are filming. Speedman simply can't make himself cry and Lazarus is having no problem and this intimidates Speedman a lot.
As they are making their way into the jungle, Speedman decides to ask Lazarus for his advice, leading to a conversation about the action movie star's big attempt to make an Oscar winning film. As they discuss "Simple Jack", Lazarus tells him he went 'full retard, you never go full retard'. And this conversation lasts for a while. With both of the actors discussing the merits and pitfalls of other actors who have played mentally challenged people. But they don't phrase it in these terms. This has raised the ire of many and the protests have garnered some attention.
But the old adage rings true. No publicity is bad publicity. And, in this case, the characters aren't making fun of the mentally challenged; they are showing their ignorance, and the ignorance of many other actors by having this discussion. Everything in "Tropic Thunder" is designed to poke fun at Hollywood, actors, movie stars and the business in general. Early in the film, after the big, expensive scene goes horribly wrong, a television entertainment program reports that production is already a month behind and they have only been filming for five days. Only in Hollywood could such a thing be possible. And it is in this same vein Speedman and Lazarus have the discussion about going 'full retard'.
Stiller is clearly having a lot of fun making this film and playing the lead, poking fun at Hollywood's foibles. In an interview, he reported that he and his co-writers worked on the screenplay, off and on, for ten years. While this obviously can't happen with every screenplay, they clearly went over every detail with a fine toothcomb, leaving no possibility for a joke to go by unnoticed. More importantly, they introduce many situations and funny moments early on, building on these ideas throughout the film, feeding the jokes as they go to new and unusual places.
I was a little surprised as Jack Black's Portnoy gets pushed into the background. He basically has one vice and this is covered fairly quickly, only to pop up throughout the film. It is a funny little gibe but it never goes anywhere.
Nick Nolte is a nice touch as the Vietnam vet who wrote the book the film is based on. He is hired on as an advisor and gladly goes along for the ride. Later, he becomes more demonstrative as the action moves to the jungle, far from the protection of a movie set. He revels in the actors adventure when the danger becomes real.
Danny McBride ("Pineapple Express") plays Cody, the munitions expert on the film. Cody is extremely gung ho to blow things up and throughout the film drops little hints to his characters previous on-set mishaps. These are funny and the explanations get more ludicrous and the film continues.
Jay Baruchel ("Knocked Up") plays one of the actors who are playing a soldier in Speedman's squad. Brandon T. Jackson plays Alpa Chino, a rapper who is striving to start a career in film. His role is a bit meatier than most of the other supporting characters because he is paying close attention to Lazarus and keeping the white man playing a black man in check.
But the real standouts in the supporting cast are Tom Cruise and Matthew McConnaughey. Tom Cruise's role as the studio executive in charge of the production is one of the worst kept secrets in movie history. But his extremely profane portrayal of the studio executive proves once and for all that Tom Cruise can do comedy. It is an extremely funny, spot on performance. If you don't think there are really people like this, I have a bridge in New York to sell you.
While there has been a lot of press about Cruise's appearance, I had no idea McConnaughey was in the film. He plays Speedman's agent and he is determined to make sure his one client is always happy. It is a funny performance, and again, spot on.
Many other people pop up in cameos, providing laughs.
There is a lot more going on in "Tropic Thunder" that I can't really talk about, because it would ruin some of the jokes.
As I was watching the film, I did feel it was a little too long, but when you are still thinking about, laughing about some of the jokes in the film, this seems like a very insignificant problem.