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Tropic Thunder

A movie directed by Ben Stiller

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  • May 17, 2009
Pros: Creative and original

Cons: More clever than funny

The Bottom Line: Thun-der!

You've probably heard all the incessant fawning over Robert Downey Junior's performance in Tropic Thunder as actor Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Oscar winner who gets so wrapped up in his characters that he even gets a blackface operation to play a black Vietnam war vet in a Vietnam movie. As Lazarus puts it himself, "I don't drop character until the DVD commentary." But when Lazarus was revealed, I realized something: Robert Downey Jr. playing Kirk Lazarus was, more than any of his other performances, Robert Downey Jr. playing Robert Downey Jr. Lazarus is a very gifted actor who gets lost in his roles but has a very troubled life offscreen. Are we seeing any similarities here?

In Tropic Thunder, Lazarus is one of three marquee stars for a movie adaptation of a book of the same name. He is the arthouse critical darling of the group, which also includes silver screen slapstick master Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller). The three of them are all on a mission to animate a book by Sergeant Four-Leaf called Tropic Thunder. (Ten men were sent. Four returned. Three wrote books. Two were published. One got a movie deal.) Tropic Thunder is a ripe satire of Hollywood and filmmaking and it proves to be consistently clever, thanks to writer-director Stiller. 

The basic plot of Tropic Thunder is pretty simple. The three marquee stars, along with a character actor and a rapper named Alpha Chino, are making a war movie called Tropic Thunder. Sergeant Four-Leaf wants to add an element of realism to the movie by placing the primary actors into the middle of a war zone with a general plot outline and using hidden cameras to capture their fear, sweat, and terror. The directors has no reason to not do this because the cast is an ego collection of prima donnas who are all proving difficult to work with. One fine day, they fly out into the middle of a war zone in which the director blows himself up with a very real land mine, leaving them truly on their own. 

I actually had a bit of trouble swallowing the plot. The film crew is supposed to be shooting on location. So where, exactly, is this war zone? Stiller apparently had this problem crop up in his head at one point, but he doesn't answer the question until the finale, in which the actors get together and take on a jungle camp where some Vietnamese are creating cocaine. Stiller is a clever guy and he had a very good idea with Tropic Thunder. But the scenario in question is just way too implausible. Vietnam? It begs the question of why the director didn't just decide to shoot in Brazil. Or at least Columbia.

Tropic Thunder is not an action comedy. Stiller realized that no actors would ever really be put into a combat zone, and so he had to give them something to do until the finale. He also realized that there wasn't a whole lot of potential for hilarious combat situations. But his solution was to make the actors bicker with each other pretty much the whole time. While Jack Black was one of the three actors on listed on the Tropic Thunder marquee poster, Black is given little to do besides go through withdrawl symptoms while wondering where his next hit of sweet, sweet crack is going to come from. His ways eventually grow to be an annoyance, but he is shoved into the background so it doesn't matter much anyway. Stiller and Downey are the grand masters of the bickering and it looks like they're actually competing for the officially designated lead role.

I already said that Tropic Thunder is a very ripe comedy. But it is a little bit too ripe. And when something is too ripe, it isn't going to last a whole lot longer. Stiller's spoofing is based mainly on Hollywood politics and trends which are very current. I can understand that most directors just want to make entertainment and aren't necessarily actively out to create timeless classics. But a lot of what comes at us in Tropic Thunder has absolutely no shelf life whatsoever. Many of the jokes are written in a context of such narrow currency they will be dated within a couple of years if that long. 

Another problem is that Tropic Thunder seems to be written to be more clever than actually funny. This isn't to defame Tropic Thunder in the humor department completely; there are times when I was roaring. But Stiller builds his script almost completely on amusing references, in-jokes, and look-who-it-is cameos. Stiller is rarely able to hit you right in the gut. The funniest scenes come at the expense of Tom Cruise's well-publicized scenes as studio head Les Grossman, and Cruise, to his everlasting credit, milks them right to dehydration. (He is also completely unrecognizable and very, very convincing as Grossman. If it weren't for his voice, you would never know that was Tom Cruise telling the key grip to punch the director.) Nick Nolte has a supporting role as the devilishly insane Four-Leaf, but his role is a small one and so we're not able to sit around laughing at him all the time. While we laugh at Downey sometimes, we are laughing mainly at the absurdity of what Kirk Lazarus is trying to do and not actually at anything he does. Understand that Downey, unlike most of the other actors in this movie, is actually playing his role and not just playing it for laughs. There's a difference.

While a lot of the actors who are basically performing cameos work brilliantly, their presences are more of the look-who-it-is types. Toby Maguire has a brief, silent role as the newest co-star of Kirk Lazarus. Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, and Nick Nolte all play small but important supporting roles. Cruise and Nolte both rival Downey in the way they manage to thoroughly dissolve right into the characters they play. But you still realize it's them doing things you don't see them do very often and it results in knowing smiles from an audience. But again, it doesn't result in you shooting your pop through your nose. There's Something About Mary this ain't. 

I wanted to like Tropic Thunder more than I did. Comedy is very difficult to do. It's so tough that even when you see a thoughtful, well-written, or original comedy, much of the time people are more enamored with its thoughtfulness rather than its ability to make you laugh (ahem, Juno). Tropic Thunder is a very brilliant attempt to be both original and funny, but it just happens to fall whenever it takes a hard shot at the gut. I can't recommend it. It's just not all that funny. It's worth a smile on late-night cable after a graveyard shift. But it won't be that feel-good pick-me-up laugh that comedies are charged with providing these days. It's original enough for me to be interested in Ben Stiller's next project, but not funny enough.


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More Tropic Thunder reviews
review by . September 28, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Thunderously Hilarious.
Warning   If your easily offened (or have no sence of humor) do not watch this film.               OK so were do I begin, how about the fake trailers at the begining or how bout Tom Cruises awesome dancing skills (sarcasm).      What ever the case likeTopic Thunder is similar in storyline to Malibu's Most Wanted its about a group of actors who think they are filming a movie in the jungle, but are completely …
Quick Tip by . October 01, 2010
Good fun to watch with the guys, though definitely odd.
Quick Tip by . August 09, 2010
A good comedy is paced like a good action film, and the (laughable?) turns to drama(?) in the final third made me shrug and not care.
Quick Tip by . July 18, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
This movie was great i loved it! I would watch it again if I had it myself.
Quick Tip by . July 14, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
This is a great parody on the art and hype of movie making.
Quick Tip by . July 14, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
RD Jr. was great...but Cruise steals the show as Les Grossman. Will we see a LG movie?!
Quick Tip by . July 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
all these great actors and such a terrible movie it has its funny parts might as well just watch the previews
Quick Tip by . December 17, 2009
Just seen this film and it was odd to say the least - watchable but not particularly funny ha ha.
review by . September 16, 2008
While Ben Stiller's latest comedy film, Tropic Thunder isn't a perfect film it is one of the better comedies to come along this summer (although, when your competition is comprised of films like The Love Guru, maybe this is damning it with faint praise). It's long, it doesn't always work, and one gets the feeling that Stiller and company applied an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach when it came to the material, but there are still enough funny bits and solid performances to make the whole …
Quick Tip by . August 21, 2009
if i didn't know that Robert Downey Jr was in this film, i wouldn't have been able to pick him out. this started much better than it ended.
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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It's not really a knock to say that nothing inTropic Thunderis funnier than its first five minutes, so sly that--especially for people watching in theaters--you don't realize right away theyarethe opening minutes of the movie. This outrageous comedy begins with a series of fake previews, each introducing one of the main characters in the film-proper (not that there's anything proper about this film) and each bearing the familiar logo of a different motion picture studio: Universal, DreamWorks SKG, et al. Such playing fast and loose with corporate talismans verges on sacrilege, but it's an index of how much le tout Tinseltown endorses the movie as a demented valentine to itself. The premise is that the cast of a would-be "Son of Rambo" movie shooting in some Southeast Asian jungle get into a real shooting war with drug-smuggling montagnards. Don't ask--though the movie does have an answer--why such highly paid, usually ultra-pampered personnel as superhero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Mozart of fart comedy Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), hip-hop artist Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and five-time Oscar-winner Kirk Lazarus from Aus-try-leeah (Robert Downey Jr.) should be running through the jungle unattended and very vulnerable. It matters only that the real-life cast has a high time kidding their own profession and flexing their comedic muscles. Bonus points go to Stiller for co-writing the script (with Justin Theroux) and directing, and to Downey,...
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Director: Ben Stiller
Release Date: 13 August 2008 (USA)
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux
Runtime: 107 min
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