I never really thought I'd say a Ben Stiller comedy was genuinely smart and funny, but here I am, saying just that. It's partly the talented cast and partly Stiller's collaborator on the film, Justin Theroux, but whatever the cause, Tropic Thunder is a hilarious movie that doesn't completely rely on gross-out humor or cheap shots for laughs. The entire thing exists to comment on the hypocrisy, egotism, delusional sense of self-importance and backward moral codes of the people who keep the Hollywood machine churning. And it's all set against the backdrop of one of the most serious film genres: the war movie.
Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a has-been action star who hopes that the filming of the war movie Tropic Thunder will restart his fading career. Soon, however, the film's director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to drop the film's stars into the middle of the jungle to get some "grittier" footage. The group of actors includes the Australian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Academy darling who has surgically changed his skin color to play a black character, an actual black actor named Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), newbie actor Kevin Sandusky (the beloved Apatownian Jay Baruchel) and goofball comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black). The men find themselves in a real combat situation, and it takes them a while to realize that they're not actually on a controlled movie set. The whole thing is a series of jokes, explosions and gunfire, resulting in a kind of giant comedic spectacle. Those are just the basics, though, so read more.
One of the most talked-about things with this movie, Robert Downey Jr.'s brownface and portrayal of a black man is remarkably well-done. The insane offensiveness is placed squarely on the actor Kirk Lazarus's ignorance and ambition to nab yet another Academy Award. Every time this is played for laughs, it's done so at Kirk's expense. What's even better, he butts heads with the actual black man of the group, Alpa Chino, who voices reasonable arguments against Kirk's outrageous actions and is met with hilariously misguided justifications from Kirk. And Alpa Chino is never actually OK with the whole thing, hinting that though the filmmakers use this brownface device for laughs, they never take it so lightly as to imply that it's a genuinely OK thing to do.
By contrast, the jokes revolving around Stiller's character playing a mentally challenged person are less carefully done. Sure, we're supposed to be laughing at the Tugg's self-centered idea that doing this kind of role will earn him an Oscar, but in the scenes with "Simple Jack" we're not laughing at the actor's misguidedness, we're laughing at his impression of a mentally challenged person. I guess it comes down to how comfortable you are with that sort of thing. I do believe the intention was to comment on Stiller's character, and I'm not saying the film is mean-spirited, because I don't think it is. It just doesn't make me feel good to laugh at Stiller's impression of a retarded person.
There are many happy surprises in the movie, not the least of which is Tom Cruise as abusive studio mogul Les Grossman. He's incredibly good at playing an over-the-top abhorrent human being. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey's performance as Tugg's well-meaning but shallow agent is completely hysterical (there's something satisfying about such a pretty man embracing such a goofy, ridiculous role). There are also funny movie-within-movie moments that are actually quite meta, like when Stiller's character thinks an actual severed head is a prop and plays with it: his character thinks it's a prop, and in real-life we know it's a prop, but in the world of the movie it's an actual head that his character thinks is a prop. . . which it is, but it's not supposed to be. . . See? It's actually weirdly smart.
Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures