Tropic Thunder

Posted on November 18, 2008 at 6:07 pm

With constant coverage of every baby bump and trip to rehab, we all feel like show business insiders these days. And co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller makes the most of that with this pointed but ultimately sweet take on Hollywood excess.

The characters are brilliantly introduced via a stream of what at first appear to be pre-feature shorts, until we realize that they are hilarious and only slightly exaggerated parodies of a rap star’s soda commercial and trailers for movies featuring a fading action star (“Global Meltdown Part VI: Here we go again. Again.”), a tubby comic who plays all the parts in low comedies — very low (“The Fatties: Fart 2”) and wants to do drama but is battling a substance abuse problem, and a Serious Actor from Australia who throws himself completely into every role (a trailer for “Satan’s Alley” about the forbidden love of a pair of friars) and has had a controversial medical procedure to darken his skin to play an African-American. They are Alpa Chino (say it aloud) (Brandon T. Jackson), Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). And they are joined by newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a huge career-building Viet Nam War epic, based on the true story of “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte) and directed by first-timer Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).

Everything, of course, goes very, very wrong. When they’re a month behind after five days of shooting and the studio executive (a very funny performance by a major star I won’t reveal) is very colorfully threatening to do many very bad and painful things, Cockburn decides to go commando, so to speak, and take the actors out into the jungle like it was “The Blair Witch Project.” And that is when things really go wrong and the actors get mixed up in some real fighting they think is part of the movie.

Stiller is great at nailing the way that the actors and the people back in Hollywood have such a permeable sense of reality that they buy into whatever is happening at the moment. That may be the way to get an Oscar, but it makes it difficult to deal with actual reality when it occurs. The overlay of these pampered stars (Speedman’s agent is frantic about the failure to provide his client with TIVO) playing tough guys (and they are not the only ones pretending to be tough) is very funny and the inside humor (“I stay in character until the DVD commentary”) is choice. A movie about a fake movie has the truest laughs of the summer.

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Action/Adventure Comedy War

14 Replies to “Tropic Thunder”

  1. OK, I am stunned. I truly expected this to hover somewhere near the comedic basement. Of course, that does not mean I didn’t eant to see it even before this review. But now – a B+!! This may warrant a sooner-than-expected trip to the cineplex rather than waiting for the dollar theater in 6 weeks (or less).
    As you have said before – a good review makes the reader want to see the movie, and not give it away. You a peaked my interest to say the least.

  2. You’ve peaked mine, too. I’m not much of a Jack Black fan, but I do like Robert Downey, Jr. and Ben Stiller.

  3. I guess I’m shocked too. The chairman of the Special Olympics, Timothy Shriver, expressed his concern about the movie because it portrays the mentally disabled so badly (references to “retards”, etc.)that he has said the movie should be banned. Yet, not a single comment from the movie mom with that concern. Also, when other groups have suggested to boycott (not ban) other movies that were offensive to them (e.g. Catholic League and Golden Compass), they were overtly criticized for promoting censorship and being narrow minded. Why no specific criticism of this movie or of the “crazy” group calling to ban it?

  4. I guess I’m stunned, too. Apparently, this movie mistreats the mentally disabled so poorly and stereotypically that the Chariman of the Special Olympics, Timothy Shriver, said it should be banned. Representatives of the National Down Syndrome Congress also indicated the film was so offensive that it justified public comment and action. Why no mention of this by the movie mom? Is it OK to repeatedly refer to the mentally disabled as “retards”? If not, why no comment? If so, why no comment that the head of the Special Olympics is overreacting and concerns about censorship? Is this treatment only for religous oddballs calling for a boycott of the Golden Compass?

  5. i didnt see the movie cuz im 12 but i want to (mom would rip my head tho) and i dont no wut the hole thing is about retards and stuff. the only reason i even rote this commnt is cuz i wuz bord at 10:00 at nigh case u wer wundring.

  6. I read your review, also surprised at the grade you gave it and then saw this movie last night…I haven’t laughed that hard in a movie in a while! It was brilliant the way the movie starts with the ads! I’m not a Jack Black fan either, but even he was kind of likeable! The 5 main characters played off each other very well. You find yourself laughing at things you know shouldn’t be funny, but you can’t help yourself the way they are presented. I can understand why the groups are upset, but at the same time, they are not presented in a way meant to be offensive. At least in my opinion. The best “warning” I can give about this movie is is you are easily offended, you should probably not go. If you can view it for what it is, just a silly poke at Hollywood, then you’ll love it!
    Great movie I definetely intend to buy and see the “DVD commentary” 🙂

  7. Tom, I have been very surprised by the reaction of those who are calling for a boycott of the film and will be posting a blog commentary on the subject this weekend. The movie makes it absolutely and incontrovertibly clear that it is offensive to label or portray the developmentally disabled that way; the searing commentary of the film is an attack on the condescending attitude of Hollywood types who perpetuate stereotypes of minorities and the disabled. I cannot imagine that anyone who actually sees this movie will fail to get that message.

  8. Good for your mom! And I’m very glad you found this site and hope you will return often and let me know what you think of the movies you see.

  9. I still have mixed feelings about this film. Certainly it is a matter of personal choice. And one cannot argue with similar movies like Soul Man, White Chicks, Coming to America, and a variety of Eddie Murphy films.
    But I guess blackface is too Taboo for me. I think the scene between Jackson and Downey Jr. where Jackson is slapped before the N-word can fully slip from his mouth goes to the point about this movie attempted to walk the line while protraying the mindset of Lazarus.
    However, posts on other boards where folks state ‘Downey Jr. really seemed black’ and the huge focus to see the movie because of Downey Jr’s character makes me worry. Do folks understand the difference between a stereotype versus a group? Are we rushing to see good acting or just blackface?
    p.s. For the same logic I did not see Bamboozled (2000) – a Spike Lee movie.

  10. Furthermore, it is posts like these on other boards (from a user review referring to Downey Jr.):
    where folks are slinging ebonics and mocking certain black people that have me worried. I suspect I’ll have several folks try to give me the ‘brotherly handshake’ or say ‘yo my brotha’ over the next week or so until this movie dies down.
    Just so you understand where I’m conflicted.

  11. What made it work for me, Leon, was that the movie’s point of view was so sharply critical of Downey’s character for thinking that he knew anything whatsoever about being black. The rapper character ‘s contempt for the whole situation — he says there is one good part for a black man in the movie and they give it to “Crocodile Dundee” — underscores the movie’s point. The scene where Downey’s character ends up quoting the theme song for “The Jeffersons” to express his feelings says it all — and is topped off by his unphased response when called on it — “just because it’s a theme song doesn’t mean it’s not true.” And of course the rapper is dealing with his own issues of stereotyping.
    I have studied the history of the minstrel era a little bit, Leon, and it is fascinating. It was the only time before the Civil Rights era nearly 100 years later that blacks and whites appeared on stage together. It was the first time in US history that black performers had a chance to appear before big audiences, make substantial amounts of money, and control their own businesses. The music, dance numbers, and jokes were enormously influential and were picked up by white performers (sound familiar?). It seems hideous to think of it now, unthinkable. But in its way it was a necessary transitional step that laid the foundation for the steps toward equality that would follow. And I strongly urge you to see “Bamboozled,” which is a stunningly provocative and important movie. Another movie that is even better on a similar theme is the neglected “Dancing in September” with Isiah Washington.

  12. This movie has a great premise with amazing cameos, but the constant bombardment of extremely foul language killed everything good about the movie. This should not be a family movie in any sense, at any age. I (28 years old) so it with my Dad and it was quite an uncomfortable and “wish-we-never-saw-this-movie” experience. To even have family discussion topics for this movie is absurd.
    It is scary that most high schoolers want to see this movie.

  13. Thank you for this comment, Ryan. This is exactly the kind of conversation I want to have about the movies reviewed on the site. I always make it clear in my reviews what kind of language is in the film for those for whom it is disturbing or a distraction. In this film, it seemed to me it was not gratuitous because it was used to show the vacuity and false bravado of the characters. Also it is less provocative than much of the other material in the movie.
    I do have to disagree with you about family discussion topics. I think every movie has something to discuss, even if, in this case, for you and your father it was just the way that the language interfered with your enjoyment of the film. Families come in all ages (as your going with your Dad shows) and I would much rather have people coming out of a movie — whether good or bad — talking about what they saw than having them just passively absorb whatever was thrown at them.
    Thanks again for writing and please keep letting us know what you think of the movies you see.

  14. “The rapper character ‘s contempt for the whole situation — he says there is one good part for a black man in the movie and they give it to “Crocodile Dundee” — underscores the movie’s point.”
    I love that there’s another layer of irony in that there’s one good part for an Australian actor and they give it to Robert Downey Jr.

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