If you think Ben Stiller has become a little too family friendly in recent years, and The Heartbreak Kid didn’t convince you of his more adult, twisted aspirations, get a load of Tropic Thunder. Stiller goes nuts in this gigantic, gory, nasty, hilarious movie that puts him back on top as both a comedic director and actor. It’s his best work in the director’s chair since The Cable Guy 12 years ago and a sick and funny showcase for the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and a spectacularly obscene Tom Cruise.
Frustrated director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is filming an overseas big budget Vietnam War movie deep in the jungle with a cast of prima donnas. Among the group are action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) coming off a series of bombs; the award-winning method actor Kirk Lazarus (Downey) who has had himself surgically altered in order to portray an African-American; and Jeff Portnoy (Black), who has made a name for himself farting like mad in movies.
The deranged author of the film (Nick Nolte) suggests the director drop his cast into a real war-like situation, rigging explosives and hidden cameras to catch some scared-actor spontaneity. Things go awry when the production sets up shop near a drug cartel, and the actors find themselves on a true rescue mission, requiring them to release the soldiers within.
The film takes merciless stabs at all forms of war film clichés, racial stereotyping, the portrayal of mentally handicapped people by Hollywood stars, junkies and more. It is, perhaps, the most politically incorrect film featuring Big Hollywood actors in many years, and God bless its big, sick heart.
Stiller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, is already getting a lot of flak for his depiction of Tugg Speedman’s failed Oscar bid, Simple Jack. Stiller is clearly taking aim at Sean Penn’s awful portrayal of a mentally handicapped man in I Am Sam, where he went, as Downey’s character proclaims, “full retard,” an Oscar no-no. I was pissed off to discover that the Simple Jack website, part of the film’s promotional campaign, was taken down as some sort of concession to a threatened national boycott of the movie by mental health advocacy groups.
I find it essential to spank the likes of I Am Sam and Radio for what they are: cheap, exploitative attempts by actors to reap awards for portraying the mentally handicapped. Tropic Thunder clearly has contempt for these acting efforts, and is not making fun of the mentally handicapped. It’s actually scary how much Simple Jack resembles the Penn and Cuba Gooding Jr. characters from those movies. It’s like they got together and had a son … a very toothy son.
Downey Jr. disappears into the role of Lazarus, a scathing testament to actors losing themselves in their parts. He’s so good, you’ll forget he’s Robert Downey Jr., mistaking him for somebody like Don Cheadle. The presence of African-American Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) constantly slamming Lazarus for his deplorable role choice works as a constant reminder that sometimes method acting can go a bit too far.
Black has what is perhaps the most brutal role of his career as a man who runs out of heroin while deep in the jungle (the remainder of his stash is stolen by a bat). When he’s tied to a tree going through nasty withdrawal, the film soars to new, gross heights. On top of all this, there’s the visual wonderment of Tom Cruise buried under makeup as a foul-mouthed studio boss. It’s the funniest thing Cruise has ever done.
So what we get with Tropic Thunder is some of the industry’s biggest stars giving a playful middle finger to their bosses and peers. It’s not so much a case of biting the hand that feeds them because it’s really the fans who buy their big houses, and fans are spared in the assault. We just get to laugh our asses off while everybody else gets cinematically slaughtered.