Title: Tropic Thunder
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Director: Ben Stiller
Screenwriters: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
The would-be satire Tropic Thunder is a mess of funny ideas, tragically undercooked. Though Ben Stiller’s directorial follow-up to the brilliant Zoolander is much cleverer than this year’s You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, its chaotic, freewheeling, unapologetically goofy style reminded me of that film — as did its repetitiveness and tendency to grate. It’s spirited, and it’s made by smart folks, but it’s just not very good.
Its strengths, such as they are, lie in its stabs at Hollywood satire. The movie opens with a set of fake commercials and previews, each introducing a principal character. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who we later learn is a rapper trying to branch out, pimps an energy drink called “Booty Sweat”. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a Great Actor and multiple Oscar winner whose typical project has him playing a gay monk in the middle ages. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is an action star whose career has gone way downhill, reducing him to releasing umpteen sequels to his biggest hit (“Scorcher” — though the latest one posits an ice age). Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a comedian plumbing the depths of the fart joke. In Tropic Thunder, a bit of stunt casting puts all these personalities together in a Vietnam War movie, based on the memoirs of a deranged war hero (Nick Nolte), with a first-time director (Steve Coogan) at the helm.
The film is occasionally inspired in its poking fun at the way vanity so often meets desperation in Hollywood. This is Tugg’s last chance to redeem his fledgling career — when a predatory showbiz interviewer asks him to respond to a statement by “a source close to you” that this latest project is do-or-die, Tugg’s forlorn response is: “somebody said they were close to me?” Method actor Lazarus has been cast as a courageous black soldier, and performs the role in blackface, to Chino’s constant outrage. Portnoy is a hopeless drug addict using this movie as an attempt to display his acting range. Some of this is funny stuff; Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux obviously know their industry and can effectively target its foibles.
They run into problems with the actual plot. The idea is that a harebrained scheme between the writer and the director sends the actors out into the actual jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam, where they’re supposed to run into staged military scenarios while being filmed by hidden cameras; everything goes wrong, of course, and the cast gets embroiled in an honest-to-goodness military conflict. What then happens is that the film continues to hit the same satirical notes, more and more shrilly, in the context of a manic action-adventure. It becomes increasingly repetitive and aggressive, a sly satire turning into a torrent of the same five jokes, replayed louder each time.
An example. The notion of Tugg Speedman attempting to revive his career by playing the title role in a film called Simple Jack, about a retarded boy who can speak to farm animals, is very funny. When it turns out that the movie — which flopped domestically — is gospel to a bunch of Cambodian villagers, who proceed to capture Tugg and make him reenact scenes in the town amphitheater, an amusing gag turns pointless.
This, sadly, is par for the course for Tropic Thunder. It never develops its clever ideas, it just repeats them until they’re played out. By the end of the film there’s nothing left. You won’t be missing many laughs if you leave after the first third.
I’ll say this: Tom Cruise has a small role — almost a cameo — that’s probably the funniest thing here; the joke is weird and random, almost incomprehensible, but the film doesn’t beat it to death. The end credits blew my mind.