Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movie Review: "Tropic Thunder"

The poster alone tells you: Downey steals Stiller's (Tropic) Thunder.

I've been looking forward to this comedy film for a long time, so I was delighted to rush off with the Cine-Sib to the cinema on opening weekend. This is the last major premiere of the summer movie season, so I was hoping it would end the season with a bang and not a whimper. As it turned out, it ends the season with a somewhat uneven effort that still provides moments of uproarious laughter, along with some of the most quotable lines since "The Princess Bride" or "Austin Powers." The satirical comedy skewers Hollywood with relentless aplomb and sometimes too-disgusting vulgarity, but there is never any doubt what the target is. After all, the flick is really a movie-in-a-movie, and the main cast members play spoiled, coddled, self-absorbed Hollywood actors who in turn are playing soldiers in a bombastic, blockbuster war movie.

The humor, in fact, begins before the movie even officially begins, as a series of fake ads and trailers splash onto the screen. They all feature the characters in their loopy stereotypes/roles -- the rap star-turned-actor! the all-explosions, no-brains action star! the lowbrow comic star! the pretentious Oscar-grubbing award-winner star! -- and the result is hilarious. In fact, the last of the lot had me literally laughing out loud until it hurt. Call the clip "Brokeback Monastery" if you like, and I'll stop now before I spoil it further, but if you want more, you can go here to the companion website (I take no responsibility if you end up twittering "I've been a bad, bad boy, Father!" in an Irish accent for the rest of the day).

As for the movie proper, the ensemble cast begins with Steve Coogan as Damien Cockburn, the frustrated director who sees his massive Vietnam war-movie project going down in flames around him. He can't seem to handle his set-ful of egotistical actors and various hangers-on. His prima donna actors are Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), along with Alpa Chino (say that name out loud first; played by Brandon T. Jackson, Alpa's a rap/hip hop music star-turned-actor) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). They're all playing soldiers, and every single one of them is a study in acting absurdity, except for Sandusky, the Hollywood newcomer who's in over his head and yet seems to be the only person who has any common sense at all. (He's also the only actor who's bothered to read the script.) Cockburn can't handle the Nick Nolte character either, the half-crazed Vietnam veteran whose book is the source of the war movie's script, or Danny McBride as the pyromaniac special-effects expert.

Finally, desperate for a fresh approach, Cockburn takes his actors into the Asian forest for a dose of realism on camera -- and then things get out of hand when a vicious gang of drug runners mistakes the actors for actual American DEA agents and starts waging a real war. The spoiled actors suddenly find that their make-believe war is real, and they have somehow got to manage.

Everyone in the cast performs adequately, though Black seems to have not quite enough to do as the drug-addled Portnoy and Stiller spends too much time making silly faces. The movie actually belongs to Robert Downey Jr., whose startling demonstration of sheer comic genius is worth the price of admission. His double role lets him take the entire preposterous premise and run away with it to unexpected places: "I know who I am! I'm a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude!" he says, and the result is an instant comedy classic.

In fact, he's unrecognizable as Downey; he completely disappears first into his role of Kirk Lazarus the blond, blue-eyed, pretentious, bad-boy Aussie star (is he a satirical shadow of real-life Russell Crowe?) and then into Lazarus's role as Lincoln Osiris, a black soldier. Downey turns his voice into part of the act, dropping it an octave and filling with an attitudinal pebbly growl that ends up being both intelligible and funny. If Heath Ledger's Joker was an astonishing turn of total identity transformation in drama, then Downey's Lazarus-Osiris is its perfect comedic twin.

The Lazarus character is such a method actor that he's undergone a medical procedure to darken his skin so he can play Osiris; effectively he's turned himself into a black man in appearance. This raised some eyebrows and thoughts of controversy, but it ends up being the source for some memorable humor -- Alpa Chino, as an actual black character, has some serious problems with this entire Lazarus-as-Osiris business, and the two actors' tense conversations provide fodder for some of the film's best moments. The satire isn't about black people, but about some actors' perceptions of black people; the satire's biting and really rather smart. Of course, a little identity insult goes both ways, as Alpa delivers some hilariously cutting remarks on the Australian-ness of Lazarus . . . who fires back defending Australia in his Osiris voice.

"This scene is about emotionality!"

The film has its slow spots, along with a few dives into tasteless sophomoric humor and some bits of vulgarity run amok both in terms of profane language and disgusting imagery. Still, its bright spots of effective humor balance out the lapses. There is a bit with a wild beast in the woods that's really entertaining, for instance, as well as a moment that will make sci-fi fans shriek. Also, pay attention to the entire exchange between Stiller and Downey about actors playing handicapped characters as a cynical attempt to grub for Oscar awards. This is the moment of the controversial "full retard" comment, but if you look at it in context, the scene is actually really astute -- and right on target.

Also, by now you've likely heard that various famous Hollywood faces appear in smaller roles in the film, and I must say that the best of these is Tom Cruise who, like Downey, has undergone a surprising comic metamorphosis. In Cruise's case, the toothily grinning, handsome star has turned into Les Grossman, an evil Jabba-the Hutt-like studio executive, foul-mouthed and totally crass, rude, and objectionable in every way -- and he also dances with a breathtakingly disgusting absurdity ("Playah!") that's sure to become as iconic (in a different sense) as the Cruise dance scene that first launched his movie career -- yes, the one with the underwear. The whole bit might just kick-start Cruise's career again: it just make make everyone forget about his Scientology-and Katie Holmes-fueled insanities over the last few years and make us all think about him as an actor again.

I do have a last question, though: if all the actors are supposed to be in southeast Asia -- and Sandusky says they're all in Laos or Myanmar -- why are all the drug lords speaking Mandarin Chinese?

In the end, "Tropic Thunder" offers more great moments than mediocre ones in a smart, sometimes savage satire of Hollywood lunacy that hits the target more often than it misses. That's comedy holding a funhouse mirror to reality, and it's a great way to end the summer movie season. As the movie poster says, Get Some!

Mad Minerva gives this film a grade of B overall. It's not for the squeamish!

"Tropic Thunder" runs for 107 minutes and is rated R for violence, lots of foul-mouthed language, sexual references, and mention of drug use.

Rotten Tomatoes gives "Tropic Thunder" a very respectable score of 84%.

Here is the film's official website.

UPDATE: Check out an excellent review by MTV's Kurt Loder (who also takes a potshot at the "humorless PC scolds" who had been criticizing the movie), as well as this review by occasional reader Christian Toto.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up... he's got a knack for not taking himself too seriously