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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Tropic Thunder (review)

Welcome to the Jungle

Oh please please please let it be true that Ben Stiller is done with the stupid shit — the humiliation “comedies” and, well, the humiliation “comedies” — and is getting back to his roots in smart satire. I’m talking about The Ben Stiller show, which nobody watched on Fox in 1990. I mean, I get why he moved on: Nobody watched it. It was too smart, too esoteric, too something that didn’t speak to enough people to make up a network TV audience. But surely now he’s richer than God and can afford to take those kinds of chances again?
He may have hit on the perfect middle ground with Tropic Thunder, which is inventively clever in its sendup of the self-involvement of pretty much anyone who’s anyone in Hollywood, but does the sending up through lots of the kind of aggressive outrageousness Stiller’s own movies have taught us to expect from big studio comedies. The hapless schmoe Stiller played in flicks like There’s Something About Mary and Meet the Parents rarely warranted the level of embarrassment and degradation he was subjected to, but the butts of the shit he’s shoveling here — as coscreenwriter, director, and star — richly deserve to poked, prodded, and stabbed fun at.

And the real joke is that they don’t realize they deserve ridicule… and so their cluelessness becomes a big part of the humor. Which is endlessly wicked and envelope-pushing and oh-no-they-didn’t! to a degree hardly ever pulled off this successfully, because it isn’t outlandish and/or disgusting and/or taboo-busting for its own sake — it’s not, “hey, semen-as-hair gel! gross!” and that’s the end of it. It’s the equivalent of semen-as-hair gel used to satirize, say, a pathological obsession with physical appearance, and not just on an individual level but on a cultural one.

Here we have megastars and multi-celebrities and the highest-powered of industry execs, and they’re all removed from their comfort zones — which are luxuriously comfortable indeed — and they never know it. Even when they sorta know it. See, action-hero “actor” Tugg Speedman (Stiller) and ultra-Method man Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.: Iron Man, Charlie Bartlett) and goofball comic Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black: Kung Fu Panda, Margot at the Wedding) and rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson: This Christmas, Roll Bounce) are all starring in a serious-minded Vietnam epic about friendship and honor and war-is-hell that’s shooting in the actual jungles of Southeast Asia. But director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan: Hot Fuzz, Night at the Museum) doesn’t feel he’s getting geniune performance out of them — and, indeed, how could he be, because they’re all more concerned about what this movie is going to do for their careers than they are about, you know, crafting a character and creating a mood. So Cockburn sets up a slightly more reality-based kind of shoot for them… and it all goes wrong. I won’t say how, because I screamed with shocked laughter like I hardly ever do at the movies. And that wasn’t the first time.

So now our putative heroes are lost in the jungle, on their own, with no clue that they’re not still making a movie, because as far as they can see, Cockburn’s plan is still in motion. And even when they do start to feel the clue bat hitting them over the heads, they cannot break away from their crutches: Speedman’s is an almost total reliance on the illusions of Hollywood culture, be it acting lessons from a certain icon or the kind of cultural imperialism celebs indulge; Portnoy’s is of a more chemical nature. As frantically funny as Stiller and Black are, it’s Downey Jr. who steals the film by being a more grounded person as his character in the film-within-the-film — Lazarus is notorious as an actor for staying in character no matter what — than he is as Lazarus, for all the artifice of Lazarus having had his skin dyed black so he could play a black soldier; it’s all a brilliant swipe at a man who’s more dedicated to fakery than he is to reality. And any suggestion of racism on the film’s part — which can only possibly come from those who haven’t seen it — must be dismissed not only because Downey Jr. is, as “the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude,” so honest and genuine, but also because Jackson, as Chino, is the most complicated of all the actor characters: his rapper would have been a caricature in any film intent, even subsconsciously, on bigotry, and he isn’t.

Similarly, Speedman’s character Simple Jack, from an earlier cinematic attempt to gain himself the respect of the industry by playing a retarded man — a character who becomes a feature of the plot here, in fact — is clearly intended to take down Hollywood for using disability as a stepping stone to acclaim and awards: the very attitude the anti-Simple Jack protesters would likely agree deserves a takedown. Simple Jack is a caricature… and we’re meant to be appalled by that. We laugh not at the idea of mental retardation but at Hollywood’s appropriaton of it.

Oh, and then there’s Speedman’s agent, Rick Peck — and you can almost taste how much Stiller and his fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux (his first script credit) and King of the Hill and Idiocracy scripter Etan Cohen wanted to call him “Dick Pecker” but figured that’d be too obvious — and studio head Les Grossman. They never actually physically leave their comfort zones — they participate in the story via phone from Los Angeles — but they never quite realize what they’re into either. And the upshot of that is the movie’s proposal that Hollywood types are worse than vicious Southeast Asian crimelords. Which is hilarious, and not least of all because of the performances of Matthew McConaughey (Fool’s Gold, We Are Marshall) as Peck — it’s one of the few roles I’ve actually ever liked him in, perhaps because it’s a perfect fit for his natural oiliness — and, holy crap, Tom Cruise (Lions for Lambs, Mission: Impossible III) as Grossman. We’ve never seen Cruise like this before — it’s like his “respect the cock” motivator from Magnolia on speed and caffeine — and surely we’ll never see this again. Did I say Downey Jr. steals the movie? It could be Cruise…

And if that’s not an outrageous joke on all of us moviegoers, I’ll eat, well, my popcorn.

MPAA: rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Stephanie

    Oh, I’m so glad to read your review! I have been torn about this movie since first seeing the trailer–it could be very good or verrrrrry bad. But since I agree with you on just about everything you’ve ever reviewed here, I’m now going to look forward to seeing TT. Thanks, MaryAnn!

  • Movies this funny from Ben Stiller remind me that it’s a shame he became a successful film actor. The stuff he writes and directs is consistently good, but it happens so rarely.

  • jenn

    I am so glad this is good. I have to admit I love Jack Black (and Tenacious D.) I was scared the only good parts would be in the trailer. I have to wait until saturday to see it though.

  • StruckingFuggle

    Prepare to be pleasantly surprised, Jenn. some of my favorite moments in the movie, and some of the funniest, aren’t in the trailer … aren’t even hinted at in the trailer.

  • MaryAnn

    What’s great about the movie is that so many of the funny parts cannot be reduced to quick moments that would work in a trailer. They rely on context — they’re not just shoehorned in but arise from the plot and characters and are only funny as they unfold.

  • amanohyo

    I enjoyed this movie a lot (especially Black and RDJ), but was a little disappointed to see a couple ancient asian stereotypes rear their ugly heads without being subverted (the “adopted” kid doesn’t really count), especially in a movie that cleverly pokes fun at several ridiculous african american stereotypes.

    Not a huge deal, and I still laughed more than I have in a while, but after Dodgeball and Night at the Museum (I know, I know, Stiller didn’t write those), seeing screaming, brainless, violent asians alongside Ben is getting a little old. I suppose I should be happy they’re getting work at all.

    The film did manage to parody how cheesy melodramas are insanely popular in many southeast asian contries, but I’m not sure that was intentional. However it was definitely intentional, and a nice touch, to show Les Grossman reading Maxim. That man is pure evil.

  • I’m still on the fence about this movie. I love movies that send up Hollywood, but…this one just sounds too violent.

  • I saw it today it was pretty good, funny fake previews, I’m really baffled at why there was a kid there not even a teenager, with his parents……..

  • amanohyo

    It is extremely violent, but so are the movies it’s parodying. The biggest flaw is that it starts really strong (the RDJ trailer is hilarious), and then the quality quickly tapers off, although RDJ and Black have their moments.

    I’m certainly glad I watched it once, but it wouldn’t hold up well to a second viewing. Stiller’s acting is nothing new, and Cruise is just embarrassing, which is the point… I think. Does anyone have know if there is a specific producer that Les Grossman is based on? One of the Weinsteins maybe?

  • The Tobey MacGuire(spelling may be off) one was very funny:-)

  • I did see the movie today, and agree it was at its best during the commercial/trailers and the first 15 minutes of the set-up.

    Much as I am a huge fan of “The Wonder Boys,” I completely missed the nod to it during the trailer for “Satan’s Alley.” All I could think of was “Brokeback Mountain.”

    Anyway, the basic fault of Tropic Thunder is that it becomes the kind of action-adventure movie it was so gleefully lampooning early in the movie. I’d probably rate it about a 6 on the IMDB scale – fun, but not great. I still have some trouble with Ben Stiller the actor (though he was just so perfect in “The Royal Tennenbaums”). Ben Stiller the writer/director is improving.

    It would have been a better movie if the ending had been subversive. “Tropic Thunder” had a classic Hollywood ending. It would have also been better to see trailers from the next movie each of the main actors made.

  • Jack

    As far as I know, Tom Cruise is making fun of the guy who turfed him from Paramount.

  • I loved this movie, but 2 bits of casting would have sent me over the moon for it. The first is that I wished that Tom Cruise had played 2 roles in this–both the role he played and Ben Stiller’s. I thought that it would have been appropriate to the movie for a variety of reasons. Barring that, I wished Cruise’s Grossman was played by Bob Odenkirk instead of Cruise.

  • Of all the Platoon and Rambo parodies I’ve seen…that was certainly one of them…

  • amanohyo

    Did anyone notice some parallels between this movie and The Three Amigos? Three famous white, male comic actors are the stars, they think they’re in a movie, gradually realize they’re not, and go on to battle an evil band of racial sterotypes.

    There are plenty of important differences, and Amigos is obviously more straightforward (and a better movie), but I just thought it was sort of interesting… and now I’m not sure where to take this comparison now that I’ve thought of it. Hmm, maybe it’s not so interesting after all…

  • amanohyo

    Oops, I meant Three Amigos!, The Three Amigos is apparently some kind of comedy special.

  • I don’t remember Three Amigos being that good a movie. However, I do remember thinking that it was cool that the guy who played the bandit leader in that movie, Alfonso Arau, went on to become a famous filmmaker in his own right. For all I know, that scene with the Mexican extras becoming “auteurs” toward the end of Bowfinger–another Steve Martin movie–was meant to be a homage to that. Or maybe not.

    However, I do see the parallels Amanohyo mentions.

    And Tropic Thunder may strike some as a better summer comedy than we usually get in August, but I for one would have liked it a lot more if so much of the film’s elements–the domineering studio boss, the greedy agent, the actor who’s “funny” because he talks “like” an African-American, etc.–had not seemed so familiar from past movies.

    I must confess that I cracked a smile or two during the middle of the movie–especially when the rap star started clashing with Robert Downey, Jr.’s character–but as a whole, the movie was not quite as funny as I expected it to be.

    I will give the movie props for making Jack Black the token actor/drug addict and not you-know-who. But I also must admit that I’ve come to despise the sight of Ben Stiller in anything close to Mr. Furious mode. And that’s the mode he was in for most of the movie.

    However, even he had one genuinely funny moment.

    So I’ll forget the fact that for more than a moment or two, I really really really really wanted the Asian drug dealers to win.

    And I don’t usually root for drug dealers…

  • amanohyo

    I saw Three Amigos! when I was eleven. It was amazing, although I understand that from the perspective of a non eleven-year old me it might not be so hot. However, I will say that if I had travelled to the future and seen Tropic Thunder when I was eleven, I doubt I would remember it today. Well, I’d remember it because I travelled through time to see it, but you get what I mean.

    I also started rooting for the drug dealers about halfway into the movie. Maybe when actors write movies about actors, they assume a certain amount of sympathy is present in the audience without realizing that it has to be earned. RDJ’s character earned my sympathy, I couldn’t care less what happened to the rest. And I had no idea that the actor playing El Juapo in Amigos was the same Arau that directed Like Water for Chocolate. That is pretty cool.

  • Henry

    Slightly funny/rather embarrassing story (spoiler alert):

    Now, keep in mind I saw it at midnight…

    When I saw the first fake commercial for Booty Sweat, I didn’t realize the film had started. I seriously thought the commercial was real, and I was getting all riled up to call the theater and complain about that horrible tasteless commercial they showed before Tropic Thunder!
    A minute later, when I realized what was going on, I felt like a total ass, and had no choice but to laugh hysterically at myself.
    Here’s why that moment was beautiful: I was horrified and shocked…but not THAT shocked. I sincerely believed that, in the society I live, that commercial would seriously exist. That’s why Tropic Thunder absolutely nailed it as far as the parody was concerned.

  • D

    Please, please tell me I wasn’t the only one who failed to spot Cruise…

  • amanohyo

    Probably not, but still… really? He didn’t alter his voice at all and even did his patented “yelling real loud = powerful acting” trick. Did you notice in retrospect that his face and forearms looked a bit rubbery?

  • D

    “Did you notice in retrospect that his face and forearms looked a bit rubbery?” I supose so. Give me a break, I’m 18, I havent’t watched as many films with him as most of you have. With that said, I think between this, Collateral, and the upcoming Valkyre I’m now a fan.
    I was disapointed by Black, though, I’m a Tenacious D fan. He wasn’t given much to do here, his character was probably the less interesting in the movie, and on top of that, he didn’t even sing!!!(the “viral video”(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBNVJG15tGs) doesn’t count). I guess RBJ awesomeness goes without saying.

  • amanohyo

    Oh, you’re 18. I understand how you could miss it then. Old fogies like me have been watching Cruise yell his way through scenes for longer than you’ve been alive. I’ve never been that impressed with Black, although I enjoyed Wonderboy (I was a fantasy geek in middle school) and School of Rock. I thought he did a good job with what he was given here. The “don’t judge me!” line still brings a smile to my face. But again, I understand how Jack Black fans might be let down.

    I wish the movie took its basic premise somewhere interesting. The whole “actors become who they pretend to be in a journey of self-discovery” is stale and predictable. Stiller is clever enough to write a satire that subverts the basic structure of what its parodying and plays with the audience’s expectations. That’s partly why I started rooting for the drug dealers halfway through; I was hoping the movie would go somewhere new.

  • MaSch

    D: Roger Ebert didn’t, either … See here.

  • D

    Thanks, MaSch. I feel better now. On a sidenote, I hope Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy got what “The Fatties” represented, and didn’t like what they saw. Also, Tobey Maguire is just a little bit creepy…

  • mt

    “And any suggestion of racism on the film’s part — which can only possibly come from those who haven’t seen it -“

    MAJ, I seem to also recall your reviewing Sanaa Lathan screeching “Eek! My hair!” in Something New as merely “childish” – which tells me that none of your friends of color (or even partly “of color”) have ever – ever – confided in you about hair issues in the dominant American culture (and I can certainly see why that might be; should you be interested, I’ve included a link or two at the bottom – you know, for fun) — and rejecting a man who’s perfect for her “just because he happens to be white” — just because she also has to put up, as smart women of any color(s) do, with the culture telling her to get the “uptight stick” out of an uncomfortable place.

    Let’s just say that just because you’re a woman in a misogynist culture, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a few other blind spots as to your own privilege.

    Sometimes, MAJ, for a really, really smart girl, your perception can really be just a little …




  • MaryAnn

    Oh, can I sigh now?

    What does this have to do with *Tropic Thunder*?

  • Robert

    I see Tom Cruise is in this. My entire take on Hollywood movies has shifted after getting a closer look at $cientology – Xenu, thetans, getting in touch with one’s inner clam, the various levels one can explore…for a few thousand dollars more, etc. I had no idea. If you aren’t familiar with the inner goings on, I recommend checking resources like Xenutv on YouTube.

    I look upon all religion with disdain but Scientology seems to be a particularly insidious journey into irrationality, institutionalized and calculated deceitfulness – to the point of attempting to actively censor rather than openly debate voices of those who discuss their inner workings – such as the aforementioned XenuTV, in my view not a benign reality.

    I find myself regretting at any movie I’ve seen with Tom Cruise, John Travolta etc. I’ve enjoyed some of their movies but it doesn’t outweigh that I feel I’ve unwittingly contributed to something sinister.

    I believe media celebrity is grossly overvalued and over-rewarded to begin with, and feel particular contempt when it becomes a financial conduit to fund something I find reprehensible. There may be other examples in life where those benefitting from my purchases may engage in things I don’t agree with but certainly movies are completely optional.

    No more Tom Cruise or John Travolta films for me, or others as I discover who they are.

  • LesGrossman613

    Wow! Coming from:

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