Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. star in TROPIC THUNDER, directed by Stiller for DreamWorks Pictures.

Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

Tropic Thunder is one of those nice movies where most of the cast is phenomenal–here, while Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan are less than amazing, they’re both good. Only Ben Stiller lacks. The script’s full of good one-liners and some knowing Hollywood references. When, for the third act, there’s an attempt at honest characterization, it stumbles. Instead of amping up the absurdity, the movie strangely sidesteps it. The last couple scenes totally ignore that sidestep, going for an ending one half Soapdish, the other Austin Powers. It’s a weak move, but it’s hard to get too upset–the Austin Powers half is Tom Cruise in a fat suit and a bald cap dancing to hip hop.

Cruise’s performance, which I thought was more a cameo, says a lot about where Tropic Thunder works well. It gives the opportunity for good actors to essay crazy roles in the “real” world. There is a certain air of unreality about the movie, if only because it’s a movie made about “Access Hollywood” type reporting using “Access Hollywood” as a narrative tool. There’s a certain conflict of interest, particularly given Cruise’s presence.

Of the three leads–and calling Jack Black one of the leads is a courtesy, Black’s absolutely fantastic, but he’s not one of the leads–Black is the only one without a recognizable real life analog. Even though Robert Downey Jr. picked his character’s nationality (Australian)–a change from the original Irish–the result, a multi-Academy Award winner who does Oscar bait, results in rather obvious Russell Crowe comparisons. Stiller’s playing a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Imagine Cruise’s career downturn but without the prestige projects and a lot of dumb, Arnold-sounding action movies. It makes Cruise’s appearance all the more amusing, but it feels–like the “Access Hollywood”–not like punches are being pulled… but they aren’t connecting.

The result is a measured success. Tropic Thunder is really funny, but never genuinely witty or intelligent. There’s a pretense it is witty and intelligent, which just makes it a little sad. Thank goodness for that Tom Cruise dance number.

As far as the acting goes… Downey is–technically–the most amazing. Until he has to play it straight, it’s just fantastic. But Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, as the non-superstar supporting cast members in the movie’s movie, steal it in terms of actual human performances. These characters exist to remind the viewer the main characters are unbelievably loopy, which really cuts into the reality factor. Baruchel has more to do in the plot, more people to interact with (Jackson basically gets scenes–good scenes–with Downey).

In much too small roles, both Danny R. McBride and Matthew McConaughey are good.

Stiller’s direction is nearly as passive as his performance. There’s some funny references to war movies–Baruchel starts the picture in glasses in what I’m hoping is a silent Full Metal Jacket reference–but in terms of actual craft, Stiller comes up empty. The movie’s strength are in the script’s dialogue and its characters (certainly not its plot) and the actors. And Stiller seems aware of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, based on a story by Stiller and Theroux; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod and Stiller; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman), Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy), Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus), Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky), Danny McBride (Cody), Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn), Bill Hader (Rob Slolom), Nick Nolte (Four Leaf Tayback), Brandon Soo Hoo (Tran), Reggie Lee (Byong) with Matthew McConaughey (Rick Peck) and Tom Cruise (Les Grossman).


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