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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

I was dubious about Tropic Thunder when previews first appeared. Would it just be a big budget Delta Farce? Would Robert Downey Jr. in black face be reminiscent of C. Thomas Howell in Soul Man? Thankfully, the answer to both of these questions is “no.”

Tropic Thunder is a daring satire of film actors, film makers and war movies all rolled up in one crude, politically incorrect package. The roman à clef plot is a clever one: four actors go to southeast Asia to make a Vietnam film, get lost in the jungle and end up fighting in a real conflict while thinking they are making a movie. These actors are Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a has-been action star, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) a drug addled scatological comic who wants to be taken seriously, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson ) a product-hocking rapper turned actor, and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who undergoes surgery in order to portray an African American soldier. All the while, studios executives, agents, an explosives expert (Danny McBride) and a screenwriter (Nick Nolte) scramble around trying to figure out what to do about their missing all star cast.

Tropic Thunder begins with fake previews for films starring Alpa Chino, Kirk Lazarus, Jeff Portnoy and Tugg Speedman. One of those previews, Satan’s Alley, a drama featuring a forbidden monastic love affair set to the tune of “Enigma,” is so hilarious, it almost outshines the main feature. The trailers also serve a purpose, introducing the main characters in a creative way without painful, boring exposition. The film moves quickly and lightly from point A to point Z thanks to the great screenplay by Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen and Ben Stiller. For every joke that falls flat there are three jokes that work, which isn’t bad for an animal comedy filled with farts, blackface and gags featuring the mentally disabled. Does the movie have some incredibly inappropriate moments? Sure. But what great satire doesn’t? I am sure some people will feel uncomfortable with Downey Jr.’s character, but I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction. Kirk Lazarus and his crazy surgery, especially when juxtaposed with Alpa Chino, the real African American character, pokes great fun not just at method actors but at Hollywood’s tendency to cast whites in the roles of minorities. I loved Downey Jr.’s performance; it made me want to stand up and cheer. Equally hilarious is Jack Black’s character of Jeff Portnoy whose slow, unexpected heroin jones in the jungle lead to hilarious complications. Finally, Tom Cruise, as the truly despicable studio head, serves as the film’s crowning comedic achievement. Okay, I never thought I would ever write that about Tom Cruise. I’m still not giving any money to the Church of Scientology.


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