Saturday, November 22, 2008

Essay Review: Tropic Thunder (****)

Directed by Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny R. McBride, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise, Reggie Lee, Trieu Tran, Brandon Soo Hoo, Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Jason Bateman, Lance Bass, Alicia Silverstone, The Mooney Suzuki, Kathy Hilton, Mickey Rooney, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Pollak.
2008--108 min.
Rated R (pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, drug material)
Reviewed by The Teen Critic on November 22, 2008.

Ben Stiller is a genius. After months upon months of such viral marketing to rival that of "The Dark Knight" and "Cloverfield," Stiller surpassed expectations to make the most consistently funny movies I've ever seen. A satire of everything Hollywood above all, "Tropic Thunder" is gloriously R-rated, wholly ingenious, rip-roaringly funny, and shockingly smart all in one (I'll be using those types of seemingly hyperbolic adjectives in my other two reviews, so get used to it). Stiller, who directed the picture with the hand of someone like Steven Spielberg or Ridley Scott and cowrote it with buddies Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux, has simply crafted a potty-mouthed masterpiece that would make a good triple feature with "Dr. Strangelove" (which poked fun at the Cold War-induced paranoia movies of that time) and "The Princess Bride" (which satirized the B-movie fantasy films such as "Legend" and "The Neverending Story"), as a movie that skewers the Hollywood system in its every facet. From the uptight, Weinstein-like producer to the method actor who doesn't get out of character "until I've finished the DVD commentary," "Tropic Thunder" eviscerates everything in its path. It's unapologetic, blissfully so, and purely hilarious for its entire running time. In fact, the laugh-a-minute ratio is probably four or five successful comedic bits every three minutes. You do the math.

Director Damien Cockburn (what a great name, right?) is not having a good week. He's five days into filming his soon-to-be masterpiece, "Tropic Thunder," and already $100 million over budget. The film was destined to rejuvenate the careers of its three stars. Tugg Speedman has burnt out after the long-in-the-tooth "Scorcher" series and failed Oscar bait in "Simple Jack," about a mentally challenged farm hand. Jeff Portnoy ruined his career after starring in the critically acclaimed "Heat Vision 'N Jack" by starring in fart comedies, such as "Fart Club" and "The Fatties." And method actor Kirk Lazarus floundered in the recent failed "Satan's Alley" (call it what my friend called it: "Brokeback Monastery").

In attempt to assuage the guilt of making some of the most critcally panned films ever made, Cockburn takes the plunge and sets out to make the best, most expensive war movie ever made. When the biggest mistake happens--a $4 million explosion that goes off without the cameras rolling, in one of the funniest scenes this year--producer Les Grossman threatens to pull the project if Cockburn and screenwriter Fourleaf Tayback don't get their bleeping act together. So, Tayback suggests that Cockburn line the forests of Vietnam with tiny cameras and watch them as they make the film themselves. Cockburn is killed by a surprise landmine that isn't one of theirs, and of course, the actors just think it's an effects show (this leads to a tastelessly funny sequence involving a "prop head" that leaves you appalled but laughing your head off). When Tugg is kidnapped, the other actors start to catch on that maybe things aren't what they seem. Lazarus, disguised both in form and voice as character Sergeant Osiris, heads up a rescue mission with Portnoy, rapper Alpa Chino, and character actor Kevin Sandusky.

"Tropic Thunder" is unlike many other comedies, in that it never ever condescends to the audience. Controversy has surrounded so much of the movie, including the makeup for Robert Downey Jr. as an African-American general and the use of the word "retard" in a supposedly offensive way. If the tone of the film is hateful toward something, it's toward the conventionality of Hollywood. It's an amazing sight to see when a satire of American war films is made with the professionalism and gravitas of those films. Ben Stiller quarterbacked the project to his fullest capabilities and captured lightning in a bottle. He even hired the cinematographer John Toll, of "Braveheart" and "The Legends of the Fall." "Tropic Thunder" is a beautiful, gritty film to look at. Also production designer Jeff Mann, who did wonderful work on "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and "Transformers," creates a brilliant environment. A film set within a film set is hard to do, I'm sure, but Mann puts it to great use.

Now, a note on some of the performances. Ben Stiller has seriously never been better in the role as Tugg Speedman. You really end up caring for Speedman as a person by the end, both as an actor (he's really quite good) and as a growing person. His performance, in my opinion, is one of the better ones this year. Jack Black is surprisingly two dimensional as Jeff Portnoy, someone who goes through an actual transformation by the end. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson are fall-down funny as Kevin Sandusky and Alpa Chino, yet surprisingly good, too. Smaller roles, including ones by Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, and Steve Coogan are successful and funny, too, if mildly underwritten.

But the performances that really put the film into perspective are those by Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise. Downey Jr. makes for both a scarily good Australian method actor and a believable black general. Think of this as Russell Crowe meets Louis Gossett Jr. Downey is simply spectacular in one of the three finest performances so far this year (the others being Heath Ledger in "The Dark Knight" and Angelina Jolie in "Changeling.") Not only does he make Lazarus believable, but he makes Lazarus in turn make Osiris believable. If that doesn't make sense to you, see the movie and then everything will come together. The role is one of the classic comedic endeavours this decade and should be up for an Oscar if the Academy is smart at all.

As for Tom Cruise, let me say this: His performance as Les Grossman is one of ribald tour de force. Yes, his hip-hop dances to "Low" by Flo Rida are silly, but no less intelligently played out. Grossman is just that, a vulgar spoof of the Weinstein brothers. Every other word is the f-word, adding twisted humanity to a character that easily could've been broad and unfunny. Grossman may be a horrible human, but he's still a human. It's scary how well Cruise plays this character. Watch his delivery of each line, as if it's physically painful to communicate with humans he finds to be lesser than he, and you'll see that it has completely rejuvenated Cruise's career post-couch-jumping.

"Tropic Thunder" isn't simply a satirical comedy; it's about the need to create something artistic. The movie they ultimately make, showcased at the Oscars sequence just before the credits, actually looks entertaining. The filmmakers and screenwriters set out to spoof Hollywood--and spoof it they did--but they inadvertently and lovingly reference it at the same time. In a country where something like "Meet the Spartans" represents the comedy that teenagers seemingly enjoy (I don't, for the record), "Tropic Thunder" is a success that goes beyond words, creating characters and situations. It's not smug with itself. And that's what makes it the comedic masterpiece it is. It isn't just a great comedy. It's Ben Stiller's Great American Movie.

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