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.

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