An uneven comedy about making a formulaic Vietnam war movie

Mar 19, 2009 (Updated Apr 25, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Downey, Jackson, McConaughey, Cruise, some metafictional twists

Cons:not enough laughs for a 2-hour comedy

The Bottom Line: Some bits and lines hit home, but many more swing and miss.

The 2008 summer comedy "Tropic Thunder" seems to have earned back its $92 million production cost, but critics seem to have found it funnier than mass audiences. Can it be too "insider" (inside Hollywood)? I don't think so, because "Entourage" is a hit on HBO even without fart jokes.

I am reminded that "The Ben Stiller Show" failed on tv, so perhaps he is not as popular a comic as I thought. (I thought that he was pretty funny in "Dodgeball," but have avoided "Zoolander").

In "Tropic Thunder," which Stiller directed and stars and takes cowriting and coproducing credits, he plays a fading action star Tugg Speedman who has made a completely failed bid for Oscar consideration playing a retarded farmer conversing with animals. Late in the film, five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) explains to Tugg where he went wrong in "Simple Jack." Even atrocious movies have their fans, particularly if they have few choices, and the supposedly Golden Triangle heroin refinery that Tugg thinks is the movie's Vietcong camp has only one videotape, "Simple Jack." They know the lines better than Tugg does when he is forced to reprise the role for them.

Well, I've gotten far ahead of myself. After the trailers on the DVD finally reach the menu and one chooses to play the feature, there are more trailers within the movie, trailers for hideous products by the four stars of the movie "Tropic Thunder" (henceforth "TT1") that is being shot in the Golden Triangle. The movie about making TT1 I'll call TT2.

The trailers within TT2 are way over the top. Tugg Speedman's in "Scorcher VI." (Sylvester Stallone is the prime target, I think.) Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) also has a franchise, in which he plays a whole family of flatulent fatties (Eddie Murphy is the main target, I think). The Kirk Lazarus trailer is for "Satan’s Alley," set in a medieval monastery in "a time when to be different was to be damned." In that Lazarus's costar is Tobey Maguire whom Downey's character bedded in "Wonder Boys," I think that Downey is parodying himself. The fourth introduction is an ad for "Booty Sweat," an energy drink pushed by rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson).

The movie they are making (TT1) seems primarily a parody of "Platoon" with a Ramboish Tugg Speedman stirred in. Lazarus, as Alpa Chino later complains, has been cast in the best part for a black man in TT1. Much too Alpa Chino's resentment, Lazarus is channeling some grizzled Southern black in TT1. In TT2, Alpa Chino has the better of ever exchange with Lazarus (as Lazarus has the better of every exchange with Speedman). And Portnoy is a drug addict.

Trying to handle the cast, directing TT1, a neophyte English director, Damien (Steve Coogan) is way over his head and TT1 is reportedly a month behind schedule five days into shooting. The big explosion is mistakenly stared with no camera running, while Lazarus is in a porta-potty.

The author of the memoir (TT0?), Sgt. Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), is on hand as an advisor. (In such a parody as TT2 is, it's hardly a surprise to find his credentials are fraudulent.) He advises Damien to take the actors and drop them in the jungle and have hidden cameras film them. With considerable satisfaction Damien tells them "you'll be begging for a body bag if it means a ride home."

This a great Pirandellian setup for actors who think they are making a movie but are actually on their own with real dangers... except that they are actors playing actors who fail to recognize that they are not being filmed (in TT1) though they really are being filmed (TT2). Alas, Stiller and the other screenwriters don't do nearly enough with this. At least before being dunked reeatedly (waterboarding without the board) Speedman attempts to follow the script (he's the one to whom it is given by Damien; one of the jokes is that none of the four leads in TT1 has read either the book on which it is based (TT0) or the whole screenplay.

The screenplay's assault on a VC camp in which Speedman's character is being held is the blueprint for the assault on the heavily armed heroin-manufacturing camp in the jungle in which Speedman is being held (and forced to reprise "Simple Jack," albeit to a more appreciative audience than the movie had found in the US.

Jack Black is not given much of any interest to do in either TT1 or TT2. I have difficulty accepting Stiller as an action hero (in TT1), though he is fine as a wannabe actor. Downey is brilliant as a method actor (in TT2) who is ridiculous as a grizzled Southern black (in TT1). That ridiculousness is repeatedly slammed by Alpa Chino in TT2; he has little importance in TT1.

(Early on, Lazarus says, "I don't drop character until I done the DVD commentary," and stays in his TT1 character for the DVD commentary track laid down by the three stars.)

Some of the funniest over-the-top performances are back in Hollywood: Tom Cruise as a bald, very hirsute, and very cynical producer, Les Grossman; and Matthew McConaughey as "Pecker," Speedman's agent.

I thought that the last part of the movie was too given over to the action film elements and the familiar coming together to triumph motif (that was also prominent in "Dodgeball," come to think of it), but it ends with an appropriately silly send-up explosion.

There were LOL moments, though not enough over the course of slightly more than two hours for me to consider TT2 an outstanding comedy. There were many desperate plays for laughs by Black and Stiller that failed. I'll grant that the drier absurdities of Kirk Lazarus and Downey's delivery are more my style (others noticed, too, and Downey got an Oscar nomination in the kind of movie that usually gets no Oscar attention).

The movie was shot on Kauai (with some spectacular, rocky terrain). The poppy raisers and heroin manufacturers speakMandarin. This is odd, but the ever-knowing movie script acknowledges it: Kirk Lazarus recognizes and uses his smattering of Mandarin phrases at a level a bit above hebephrenia (according to Keelung).

There is a lot of gross-out humor that I'd "credit" Stiller for. I'm surprised that Black, who is usually inventive, does not manage to do much as Portney. Downey plays with fire without getting burned (mostly because Jackson's Alpa Chino is there to puncture Kirk Lazarus's pretensions), and flashes of wit, though I think that  the wit is more consistent in "Entourage" than in "Tropic Thunder" (2), not to mention the two great documentaries about filming in the jungle: "Burden of Dreams" and "Hearts of Darkness." Come to think of it, TT (1) gets more and more like "Apocalypse Now." as it crawls along.

© 2009, Stephen O. Murray

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