Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

In case you missed the lowdown, this film is Ben Stiller's take on parodying Hollywood, it's actors, producers, studio heads, agents, special effects wizards, and pretty much everything in between. The general idea is to ridiculously magnify and satirize all of the ludicrous, and not so ludicrous, traits of the movie making machinery. Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a super action star on the decline who, after flopping in a film he hoped would bring him acting recognition and accolades, is in Asia to film the most expensive was movie ever made and hopefully garner the respect for his "craft" that he has so long desired. His fellow cast members include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the mega Oscar winning method actor who has undergone a skin pigment dying process in order to make him as authentically "black" as his character, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the grossly over-the-top comedic actor who is the lead, as well as most of the supporting cast, in the comedy franchise The Fatties, hip hop mogul, entrepreneurial huckster and actual black guy Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and, of course, the obligatory innocent new kid on the block, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Along with the rigors of filming in the jungle, the cast are constantly bombarded on-set by psycho special effects guys, the inept director (Steve Coogan), the moody and unbalanced "soldier" who's "memoir" is the basis of the film (Nick Nolte) and off-set by ass kissing agents (Matthew McConaughey) and power mad studio executives (Tom Cruise). As production becomes stymied, a decision for raw realism places the cast in a real-life desperate situation who's survival may only be achieved by actually becoming the well honed fighting unit that they portray or, at least, acting the parts more convincingly.

Yeah, it's funny. It's not pee your pants while you hyperventilate funny, but, as it remains consistently true to it's over the top form, it does provide a fairly steady stream of humor while intermixing some truly laugh-out-loud segments with an equal number of choke on your soda moments. The film pretty much leaves no stone unturned in it's quest for Hollywood bits to satirize and repeatedly reminds that nothing is sacred when it comes to their pointed observations, which I found to be remarkably refreshing for a Hollywood comedy when you stop to consider that movies very rarely make fun of themselves. I have a tendency to pass on most outright comedies because, in my opinion, the majority from the past few years have suffered from lack of inspiration, bad writing and an assumption that a well known actor (Norbit, The Pink Panther) or a physically attractive female (The Dukes of Hazzard, Over Her Dead Body) will make up for what the film lacks in substance*. Thankfully, Tropic Thunder uses everything I just mentioned as inspiration, and the core of it's substance is how seriously it takes the Hollywood lack of substance. I know, it's confusing, but trust me, it works.

The other thing that works well in this film is the cast. Stiller, once again, makes good use of his abilities to pull off a spot-on parody while displaying the utmost sincerity, however, this time he compounds the performance with the addition of his character's horrendously bad portrayal of the award designed character of Simple Jack. Jack Black is, well, Jack Black - his character, Jeff Portnoy, isn't much of a departure (if any) from most of the other Jack Black characters which, for this this film, is exactly what they needed. Black's Portnoy helps keep the energy level maximized as well as providing a few of those "I really shouldn't be laughing as this" moments. I think I should state, for the record, that I'm not a big fan of a Black's more colorful character work - I tend to have a greater appreciation for his "low key" efforts, but, for this movie, his exuberance is perfect. Brandon T. Jackson as hip hopper Alpa Chino starts out very stereotypical but undergoes a comedic, but intelligent, evolution as the film progresses, as does Jay Baruchel's character of Sandusky. McConaughey is the perfect shallow talent agent who sees his bottom line as being in direct proportion to his obsequiousness and Nick Nolte would have to the first, best choice for a psychotic burnout memoir hawking jungle rat.

Together, the previously mentioned cast and their respective characters could easily combine to make, at the very minimum, a mildly amusing film, but I firmly believe that Robert Downy Jr. as Kirk Lazarus and Tom Cruise as producer/studio exec Les Grossman make this movie entirely worth seeing and add a degree of humor, originality and out and out entertainment that is becoming harder and harder to find in big production comedies. Downy Jr.'s Lazarus is the glue that holds the entire chaotic story together - when the story gets too crazy, he's the level plain that the camera always returns to and when the kinetic energy subsides, Lazarus becomes the humor focal point. I seriously doubt, because of the character specific nuances, if anyone could have pulled off the Lazarus character as well as Downy Jr. As for Tom Cruise, all I can say is: Wow. In my wildest imaginings, I would have never anticipated seeing such a performance from Cruise - he was loud, abusive, abrasive, disgusting, foul mouthed, egocentric, insulting, and repugnant........oh, and brilliant. The Grossman character is an unexpected delight (especially when he dances) and could not have been used more appropriately - considering the character's coarse and extravagant personality, he could have very easily been overused to the point of losing his shock value but, instead, his scenes were spaced well and properly short, leaving the audience (me, at least) wanting more.

I definitely enjoyed this movie and was pleasantly surprised at the final product, although I can easily say that this film isn't for everyone since some of the humor will be too much for certain audience members, while other audience members will be completely oblivious to the less than obvious jokes. I guess that's the way it is with most well written/rounded comedies, except in this case, with the emphasis on the extravagantly extreme, the disharmony will seem more apparent. Just do me a favor, try actually watching it (theater or when available for rent) before you decide.

*That statement refers only to U.S. comedies.

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