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Tropic Thunder   B+

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Brandon T. Jackson, Bill Hader, Nick Nolte.

Review by Rob Vaux

Man alive, is that an actual funny movie? I'd forgotten what they look like! But sure enough, writer/director/star Ben Stiller has finally delivered what the summer multiplex has sorely lacked this year: honest-to-god quality comedy. Ostensibly, Tropic Thunder relies on the same basic notions that 2008's other would-be laughers do -- a high-concept gimmick, a passel of gross-out gags, and established comedic stars out to prove that they're still relevant. The difference is that it views those qualities as genuine inspirations rather than an excuse to put the whole affair on autopilot.

Stiller is usually at his best when he handles his own material, as he does here. He's also about a zillion times funnier playing self-important imbeciles than the hapless everyman characters that made his fortune. Tropic Thunder's Tugg Speedman is only slightly less broad than White Goodman or Derek Zoolander, but still proves a marvelously empty-headed goof too self-absorbed to realize how much trouble he's in. As the has-been star of loud, dumb action films, he lost his bid to be taken seriously as an actor with the disastrous Oscar bait Simple Jack and now sees his career slipping away. He hopes to revive it with a gritty new war picture being filmed in the jungles of Vietnam -- joined by obnoxious comic Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), Method actor run amok Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), hip-hop artist in transition Alpha Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and central casting refugee Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) to tell the "harrowing true story" of John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte) and his escape from a Viet Cong prison camp. Trouble comes when their director (Steve Coogan) grows tired of their infantile nonsense and resolves to shoot them in verité. Seeking genuine authenticity, he inadvertently dumps them in the middle of the Golden Triangle, where the local drug lords mistake them for DEA agents. The actors, of course, still think the whole thing is make-believe.

It's simple, effective, and to the point: a terrific opportunity for the principles to act silly amid endless jabs at bombast-laden war pictures and the process which creates them. That last part holds particular importance, because it gives Tropic Thunder an extra inspirational wrinkle. Anyone can make fun of Platoon or Apocalypse Now -- which Stiller does at every turn -- but it takes a dash of genius to blend that with the filmmaking egos behind such epics. While Speedman and his cohorts fend off the cranky locals, their support network in La-La Land springs into action... to exploit the situation for all it's worth. A moonlighting Tom Cruise turns his tarnished public image on its ear as the vicious (and very funny) studio head in charge of the whole fiasco while Matthew McConaughey makes a similarly redemptive turn as Speedman's too-slick-for-words agent. Stiller balances their aggressive narcissism against the expected send-ups of desperate last stands and "no one gets left behind" clichés, raising Tropic Thunder a notch above typical genre parodies.

Not only does the mixture provide an imaginative variety of targets, but it also gives the cast outstanding material to work with. Earlier summer comedies seemed to assume that the mere presence of their stars would be enough. These boys recognize that they still have to earn their keep. Stiller and Black do fine with some well-practiced shtick -- entitled cluelessness for the former, energetic gluttony for the latter -- but the real trump card is Downey. His committed Australian artiste shows up with pigmented skin and an Afro to portray a black sergeant... and eventually becomes so dedicated to the role that he can't readily find a way out. He and Jackson have a ball bickering at each other, but the idea of such thespian overreach is so potent -- and Downey so keenly aware of its comic possibilities -- that he can literally deliver a belly laugh every time he opens his mouth.

Stiller encodes the film with the same sense of the surreal which helped Zoolander work so well. Tropic Thunder is just skewed enough to let the jokes go nuts while still keeping its central characters connected to plausibility. His occasional reliance on shock tactics can be predictable -- it's just too easy these days -- but he mixes things up by focusing on violence rather than sexual functions or body noises. Severed heads, mangled limbs, and the best surprise death since Deep Blue Sea all become comedic props, their outrageousness validated because they work so successfully.

And unlike a number of other films this summer, Tropic Thunder doesn't overstay its welcome. Stiller aims for a brief running time chock full of laughs rather than a longer one laboring to hold our attention. We've been truly starved for such an effort, made here by people who don't take our goodwill for granted. Tropic Thunder respects us enough to work for our approval, loves its targets enough to really stick the knife in, and in the process, delivers our last, best chance to have some real fun before the summer draws to a close. Hell, it may even save Tom Cruise's career. Let's see Batman do that.

Review published 08.15.2008.

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