Director: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black
Well played, Mr. Stiller. Tropic Thunder is the rare Hollywood satire that actually satirizes aspects of Hollywood and movie making rather than just taking light, easy shots that have already been well-trod by several other movies. It also manages to balance its elements, easily mixing comedy with action and plays kind of like a comedic version of Hearts of Darkness, the documentary which details the tumultuous filming of Apocalypse Now.
Tropic Thunder is the title of the movie within the movie as well as the book that movie is based on. The book was written by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and relates the story of his rescue from a Viet Cong prison camp. Four Leaf acts as a consultant on the film adaptation and, when the cast starts acting like prima donnas, suggests to director Damien Cockburn (Steven Coogan) that he take them out to the jungle and shoot the film gorilla style. Shortly after being dropped off, a combination of Indo-China era landmines and drug traffickers brings the film to a halt, but the cast still thinks they’re making a movie. Following the lead by waning superstar Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), the cast makes its way deeper into the jungle, still in character and still acting out scenes they think are being filmed by hidden cameras.
The other four members of the cast are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a drug addled comedian, rapper Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) whose greatest concern is promoting his energy drink “Booty Sweat,” Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a celebrated actor who engages in intense preparation to get into character, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor making his film debut and the only person who has actually read the script (“I don’t read scripts,” Lazarus informs him, “scripts read me.”). These four become separated from Tugg after an argument and later have to rescue him when he’s captured by the drug traffickers.
The actors in the film are all pretty much perfectly cast from Nolte down to Baruchel. Black is an actor I like a lot but, School of Rock aside, I think he’s better in supporting roles, as little bursts of spastic energy rather than as the chaotic force that drives the whole movie. Stiller, too, is pulled back in the best possible way, rendering a more restrained (and effective) performance than he has in a long time. As for Downey, he quite simply walks away with the movie. I don’t even really know how to describe the performance; I think his stunning dissection and deflation of full immersion method acting is something you just have to see for yourself to fully appreciate.
What raises Tropic Thunder above the more typical Hollywood self-mockery is Stiller’s control over the subject. So often movies like this edge a little too far over the top so that as a viewer you feel a real disconnect from the material because it bears no resemblance to what you’ve already seen for yourself. The trailers which precede the film and the Oscar ceremony that comes at the end, for example, are satirical without being ridiculous (I would totally see Satan’s Alley and I’m kind of surprised that The Fatties and Scorcher aren’t already movies). It’s a cleverly written movie and well executed both in front of and behind the camera.