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Arts & Culture

Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder revolves around a big Hollywood war movie based on a memoir by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a Vietnam vet who lost both his hands rescuing a buddy. But the film is already "a month behind schedule five days into shooting." The reason? A group of egotistical stars all wanting the spotlight and a wussy director who seems to know nothing about war. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action hero whose films are losing popularity as they recycle the same story over and over again. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a multi-Oscar-winning Australian method actor who boasts that he doesn't drop character until after he does the DVD commentary. He's just undergone skin pigmentation surgery so that he can play an African American soldier. And finally there's Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug-addicted comic best known for fart gags. Now he's trying to expand his range by doing a war drama. Overseeing this unruly bunch of self-centered celebrities is Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan who can also be seen later this month in Hamlet 2 ), a British director who can't get anyone to pay attention to him no matter how hard he stamps his feet.

Steve Coogan (with the Union Jack on his shirt) plays the hapless director in Tropic Thunder (Paramount)

Egged on by Tayback, Cockburn decides to take his cast out into a Southeast Asian jungle and essentially abandon them so that they will can find the "reality" of the story they are supposed to be telling. He says he will have cameras planted throughout the jungle ready to film them in their adventure improv. That's the plan. But it literally blows up in Cockburn's face. The actors then find themselves stranded in the jungle and under attack from the local drug dealers.


Back in the states, Speedman's agent (Matthew McConaughey) is more concerned with getting Speedman the TiVo promised in his contract than in understanding the real danger his star has landed in. Also keeping an eye on the production is Les Grossman (played by a fat and balding Tom Cruise), a foul-mouthed, short-tempered studio executive who likes to see others squirm. Now all the characters are in play for this apocalypse now war action comedy.

But let me backtrack for a moment to mention that Tropic Thunder actually starts with some fake promos. There's one advertising an energy drink from rapper Alpa Chino (pronounced like "Al Pacino," his idol) and utilizing a lot of booty to sell his product. Then there are trailers for Speedman's latest sequel Scorcher VI - Global Meltdown - Again, and Lazarus' pretentious art house film about gay monks and their forbidden love, a kind of Brokeback Monastery. These faux ads set the tone perfectly for the film.

Ben Stiller and Robert Downey, Jr. as actors trying to out-act each other. (Paramount)

Stiller may not be that great an actor, but as co-writer (with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) and director he certainly knows the Hollywood milieu that he mercilessly mocks. The first fake trailer perfectly mimics the way studios try to package their films with the come on of promising something fresh and exciting yet the assurance that it will also be safely familiar. Then the second, Miramax-style trailer sends up the pompous way indie labels try to tackle "serious" issues. So within minutes of starting his film, Stiller neatly pokes fun at both big budget summer actioners and modest-budgeted art films.


Then Stiller sets his sights on his pompous acting colleagues. Downey's Lazarus sends up all those performers who come on talk shows to discuss their "technique" and how they do extensive research to get under the skin of their characters. In Lazarus' case he doesn't so much get into the skin of his character but rather gets his skin changed to play the character. Then we have Black's Portnoy poking fun at all those actors who try to break out of their career ruts. Stiller himself takes on the role of the failing action star who's trying to raise his game by acting with a multi-Oscar winner. None of these guys makes Hollywood celebs look very good. Then of course we have the man behind the camera, Coogan's Cockburn, a director most decidedly in over his head and trying to find a gimmick that will make his film "real." Everything in Tropic Thunder is squarely aimed at deflating Hollywood pretensions.

Which now brings us to the "retard" jokes. In the film we see Speedman's attempt at serious work - a Sling Blade-like story of a mentally challenged young man called Simple Jack - but we're told the film bombs. This brings a lecture from Lazarus who explains to Speedman that the reason he failed to get accolades that actors like Billy Bob Thorton ( Sling Blade ), Tom Hanks ( Forrest Gump ) and Dustin Hoffman ( Rain Man ) received is that he went "full retard." Those other actors were smart enough to only go halfway. But Speedman went too far, like Sean Penn in the disastrous I am Sam . Now on a certain level I could see how this might offend some people. Yet Stiller is not making fun of the mentally challenged, he's making fun of actors who try to prove to win acclaim by pulling on heartstrings with maudlin performances. And that is funny. Very funny. And Lazarus is dead on in his assessment. He's poking fun at Hollywood clich es, pandering actors, and the way Hollywood can milk disabilities so that it can feel like it is dealing with "serious" issues.

Robert Downey, Jr. into the skin of his character in Tropic Thunder (Paramount)

The same satiric mindset is behind Downey's blackface performance. It's not so much about race as it is about the lengths to which an actor will go to do a role. What's being satirized is an actor's obsession with getting into a role. It's like when DeNiro got fat to play the older Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. That was obsessive. It led to a great performance but it was a bit crazy. What if every actor tried that level of realism - maybe amputating a leg to play a war vet, or dropping acid to play a 60s hippie, or slitting one's wrists to get in tune with a suicidal character. Downey's Lazarus just takes "method acting" to an absurd extreme, and Downey pulls it off with wicked humor. His Lazarus is so into the part that he loses sight of the real world. Downey's performance makes fun of actors who take themselves and their work too seriously.

Danny McBride as an effects guy and Nick Nolte as Vietnam vet Tayback (Paramount)

In this world of egocentric lunatics, it's the supporting actors like Kevin (played by Jay Baruchel) who prove the most functional. The character of Kevin actually went to boot camp and can read a map not just act like he's reading one. The tech guys also prove heroes. Effects man Cody (Danny McBride who's also in this summer's Pineapple Express ) has the know how to really bust these actors out of the jam they are in. It's Cody who has the technical knowledge to rig explosives and conceive a counter attack to the drug lord and his gang. Stiller doesn't even let Tayback off the hook as he undermines his authenticity to prove that anyone can sell themselves in this media-addicted world if you just have a good story to tell or to deceive you with. Just figure out what the public wants and give it to them and you'll be successful.

One of the surprises in the film is that Stiller has gotten a pair of pretty boy leading men - Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey - to cut loose and go for broke in ridiculous roles. Cruise has the most fun onscreen since Magnolia . He's having so much fun camping it up that I actually found him engaging. Cruise has a knack for playing egotistical, over the top, power hungry jerks. As Les, he's a hoot. In a less exaggerated manner, McConaughey scores as an inexplicably and obsessively loyal agent.

Tropic Thunder (rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material) doesn't always sustain its comedy but its fleet on its feet so that bad jokes never linger. It's a film that looks like a big dumb comedy but it proves to have some satiric smarts underneath. Stiller succeeds in deftly satirizing an industry he knows well and seems unafraid of skewering. Maybe he learned a little something from his dad Jerry Stiller in the film The Independent in which the low budget indie world received comic scrutiny (and Ben had a bit role as a cop). If you are easily offended then stay away. But if you think Hollywood deserves to be roasted by its own, then Tropic Thunder will prove highly enjoyable.

Companion viewing: The Independent , The Player, Hearts of Darkness, Watermelon Man