I finally saw the film that's been the #1 movie for a few weeks, Tropic Thunder, this afternoon at my local cineplex. A comedy sounded good and this movie had two top comedians in Co-writer / Director / Star Ben Stiller and Jack Black. Plus Iron Man himself Robert Downey Jr along for the ride. So we sat down for the yuk fest and waited for the movie to begin.
(Minor Spoiler Alert!) The movie starts off by seamlessly blending fake commercials and movie trailers in right after the real movie trailers end. It's actually the best part of the movie as you are suddenly confronted with a commercial about an energy drink called Bootie Sweat delivered with poker faced hype. Three movie trailers follow which introduce you to Ben Stiller's fading action star character Tugg Speedman, Jack Black's Eddie Murphyish fart comedy character and Robert Downey Jr.'s Oscar winning Australian "serious" actor Kirk Lazarus. All three trailers are played out with the appropriate spectacle and movie voice over of real trailers.
The set up of the movie is that these actors are in a Vietnam war movie called Tropic Thunder which is being directed by a rookie Englishman (Steve Coogan) and written by the man who "lived" the story portrayed by Nick Nolte. Elements of Apocalypse Now and Platoon are launching pads for the initial comedy as pyrotechnics and martyr acting poses all go awry. As acting egos collide, Nolte convinces Coogan to take the actors into the jungles of Vietnam to film them in staged but more realistic situations to make them more convincing in their performances. So they take the actors / soldiers out to the jungle and tell them they will encounter situations that seem real but are really fake to get the best acting they can. And then the Director suddenly dies.
But the actors are unsure if the Director faked his death and proceed as if its still a movie. I won't give away much more of the story in case anyone else hasn't seen this film yet, all this happens in the first 20 minutes or so. Tropic Thunder tackles the different "difficult" actor archetypes and has fun skewering them and the big money Producers and Agents that make them. Almost everyone is selfish and self involved to the point of obliviousness which is where most of the comedy comes from. A lot of action takes place, with guns blazing and stuff blowing up left and right (one of the main supporting characters is the Pyro guy from the set). Actually, Thunder comes across as an action film with occasional jokes than a full on comedy which was a bit of a let down to me. It tries to be knowing and wink at the audience about the ludicrous ass kicking that takes place yet there's too much of it to accept it as a joke.
The comedy that is there usually comes from the interactions between the dopey action hero Stiller and the deluded character actor Downey Jr. Both characters walk a fine line between humor and offensiveness and when it comes to comedy I'm not easily offended. Stiller's character is proudest of his performance in a box office bomb called Smiling Jack where he portrays a mentally disabled man so poorly it makes him the joke of the town. A series of jibes about mental retardation follows and it comes to haunt him later in the movie. At the same time, Downey Jr plays an Austrailian actor portraying an African American soldier in high tech blackface. In lesser hands this would be completely offensive, but Downey makes it clear he's mocking the actor impulse to live a character to the 9th degree (like a cross between Sean Penn and Russell Crowe) and plays his character as being blind to the implied racism of his performance (which is repeatedly pointed out to him by other characters). Meanwhile, Jack Black is surprisingly not given much to do other than act like a smack addicted maniac.
But there is one saving grace to Thunder, and that's Tom Cruise. Cruise as the smarmy balding and overweight movie producer Les Grossman takes relish in sending up studio execs and big money players in Hollywood. No matter who he addresses, Cruise unleashes a fantastic torrent of condescending wrath of God ridicule that it's hilarious. Even guest star Matthew McCaughnahey is taken aback by the Cruise missile. The more Cruise the better as it was the only points in the movie where I was rolling with laughter.
Even taken on its own terms, Tropic Thunder is a slight misfire. It's not quite a comedy though there are some truly funny bits in it. It's not quite an action film because it gets a little more silly towards the end. The humor is borderline offensive and will probably upset more than a few people (though I was OK with it as humor and that includes the hits Asians take in the movie as well). All in all, Thunder is a mild disappointment to me. I can't say I didn't like it but it really did not live up to my expectations at all. Fortunately, Tom Cruise steals the show and makes his scenes showstoppers. Wow, when was the last time anyone could say that?