I found myself smirking more often than laughing at Ben Stiller’s new movie Tropic Thunder, and I don’t mean that as damning faint praise—the film is satire, not comedy, so it doesn’t mainly divert and try to pander to an audience’s feelings like a traditional comedy. You have to think while watching this one—and try not to get your feelings hurt in the process.
The movie, cowritten by actors Stiller and Justin Theroux and writer Etan Cohen, focuses on the shooting of a war film in Vietnam—with evidently deliberate parallels to Apocalypse Now, Platoon, First Blood, and Born on the Fourth of July. But the film, like Altman’s The Player in 1992, aims higher—skewering not just Hollywood excess and superficiality but also the culture the movie industry represents in miniature. The title may or may not be meant to “rhyme” with Desert Storm, and the incompetence and venality of the movie people portrayed here can be equally tagged to Washington and any boardroom in America.
The movie’s edginess and unevenness stop the audience from ever feeling entirely relaxed. Like Pineapple Express, the movie has unexpected gore. It tramples on people’s sacred cows—already individuals have protested the frequent use of the word “retard,” but clearly they miss the point—all kinds of thin skin (about race, sexuality, drugs, children, not to forget the continuing raw nerve of Vietnam) have a moment on the hot seat.
The film involves an ensemble of actors—a technique usually more successful with US audiences on TV than in movies. It works here, I think.
Stiller, buffed up as an action star whose biggest hits are behind him, is great here in an over-the-top performance reminiscent of Zoolander. Jack Black is funny as a chubby comic actor struggling with heroin addiction, whose whole career has thus far been established on fart jokes. Brandon T. Jackson plays a hiphop artist making the crossover into action—brandishing a phony credibility of his own, while serving as a foil to Robert Downey Jr, playing an A-list Australian actor who has undergone pigmentation treatment to play a black character in the film within a film. In some respects, each character is a caricature of some other actor who is actually in the film or of aspects of the actor playing the character. Good sports, every one.
Tom Cruise plays a ruthless middle-aged studio exec, fixated on money and ego. Matthew McConaughey plays an agent, who hammers down details while missing the overall point. Nick Nolte plays the veteran GI whose bestselling memoir is the basis for the production. Steve Coogan plays an inept, first-time director. Jay Baruchel is the ingénu, a young actor getting his big break, who is better prepared and more professional than his costars.
It’s Downey and Cruise here who mainly worked for me. Downey gets across a sense of panic and world-weariness underlying his character’s polish. This is Downey’s year, it looks like—this film being a great follow-up to his triumph in Iron Man. Cruise seems to relish the opportunity to be an actor, rather than a celebrity/Scientologist. This film is a reminder to us than he can act and raises the question of why he doesn’t do so more often.