Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller,
Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan
Jay Baruchel, Tom Cruise
Brandon T. Jackson
There's only a step from the sublime to the ridiculous, or so goes the adage which perfectly helps describe this film.
What begins as a satire of the most cynical, rarely seen, kind, slowly descends into a film you no longer laugh with, but at (or sometimes just cringe), as it proves that Hollywood has mastered the art of blockbusters, creating stars and draining a clever idea until its just left stale.
The plot centers around the shooting of a Vietnam war film called "Tropic Thunder" that has brought together three of the brightest male stars available.
Action superstar Tugg Speedman (Stiller), scatological comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) and five time Academy Award winning, method actor, the Australian Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) who is playing an African American by going blackface.
Their very different screen personas are established in the absolutely brilliant prologue (to which the rest of the movie sadly never lives up) in which things as seemingly inocuous as trailers deliver some hilarious, cleverly conceived critiques on the roles of actors, audience perception and studios in the ultimate concept of cinema.
Later we see director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) as he struggles to capture the action while the actors' egos are the only ones in full battle.
When he is threatened by a studio executive (Cruise in "look at me being funny and showy in a fatsuit" mode) he decides to follow the advice of the mysterious John Tayback (Nolte), who wrote the book the film is based upon, who suggests that the only way his cast will get the work done is if they go to real war.
They take the cast to the middle of a jungle infested with members of a drug gang who assume the actors are DEA agents, while the actors think of them as really good stuntmen.
When things start getting out of control Speedman decides this will be the role of his career and goes forward with the guerrilla shoot, while Lazarus tries to convince the others that they are no longer in a movie.
Stiller (who wrote the script with Etan Cohen and the amazing Justin Theroux) makes an intriguing first impression with his "war as a game" take on how the media has made us perceive violence.
When one of the actors spills his fake guts after being shot, the scene makes for an uncomfortable moment where some audience members will laugh out loud at the silliness of it all, while others will wonder when did it become normal to laugh at guts being spilled.
Perhaps Stiller was trying to point out how people react to different genre stimuli and go "this is a Ben Stiller film, so this is supposed to be funny", leading us to examine carefully the way in which we process information regarding the channel and medium.
But the problem is that most of the film suffers because of this, you wonder if it's trying to be bitter, morbid, smart or just going with the flow.
It offers some funny observations on various industry types (and the film is probably enjoyed more by those who know about the trade) but it never lets us forget the fact that these very people greenlit this and allowed it to be made.
The Academy Awards are a major source of gags in the film and while the writers honestly think they are one step ahead of the organization by revealing how it chooses to award people, truth is you can almost touch the fact that in this blasé take, they are also demanding the Academy takes notice of them and it is so with almost every other thing in it.
Except Downey Jr. who aptly owns the film with a performance that is always a step ahead of the others. Playing "a dude playing another dude who's playing a dude" he brings a certain dignity to something that could've resulted highly offensive and obscene.
Lazarus' love for the craft (he never leaves character even as the others endure personal hell) highlights what is both great and wrong about film, giving Downey the distinction of being the rare kind of figure who can be box office draw while preserving artistry.
That we never think of his "blackface" as his character or as Downey Jr. as Lazarus is a testimony to an actor at his very best.
"Tropic Thunder" is sometimes too clever for its own good, like the popular kid at school who hides his geekiness to preserve his coolness, it knows it can do better, but chooses to settle. It encompasses itself perfectly with Kevin Sandusky (a scene stealing Baruchel), a young actor who ends up becoming the leader in the background because he knows how to balance different parts of his personality. During a key scene he confesses to Lazarus that he became an actor because of him, while acknowledging to Speedman that he also watched his action movies repeated times. Sandusky, like the film, is both its attack and its salvation, its most fervent admirer and fiercest enemy and as war itself the results are rarely a laughing matter.