Tropic Thunder is a movie about making a movie by not making a movie (or something like that). Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) assembles himself a “star studded” cast of actors to grace his latest war movie. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the group’s has-been action hero in search of a hit, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an award-winning Australian actor trying something new (a medical procedure turned his skin black), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a drug addicted comedian, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a rapper-turned-actor and rounding out the group is the geek Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). During filming, it is quickly realized these guys can’t work together; can’t get their lines out; and can’t take direction at all. Facing pressure from the financial backer of the movie, Cockburn listens to the author of the book the movie is based on, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and sends the actors out into the jungle. Unfortunately for them (and good for us) they’re dropped into hostile territory. So instead of shooting a guerilla style war flick, they end up shooting guns gorilla style.
Unexpectedly and rather amusingly, the film opens with a group of fake commercials and trailers. My best guess to this cinematic prologue of sorts is this is Ben Stiller’s way of letting us get to know the characters a little better before the opening of the movie. The commercials are funny but the last trailer is by far the funniest of these shorts and very nearly the entire movie. After these faux trailers, it takes a while for Tropic Thunder to regain the same level of comedy the opening sequence set the bar at. It isn’t until midway through, when the team is dropped into the middle of the jungle that the audience’s patience pays off with one of the most OH MY GOD moments I’ve seen in a long time. It is literally so stunning, surprising, and so wrong on so many levels, that your laughter feels dirty (which of course makes it that much more hysterical).
It isn’t all laughs in Tropic Thunder however. There are times Stiller (he directs the film too) drags jokes far too long and others where he breezes too quickly through scenes that should have definitely been longer. The personality flaws of the characters, which are major points to the movie, are dull and unoriginal. For the most part the movie offers nothing smart under its layer of stupidity; in the end it is just a nonsensical juvenile comedy. Also, much to my chagrin, I wasn’t overly impressed with the casting either. Jack Black probably could have been replaced by any Saturday Night Live cast member, past or present, without much difference in quality. Ben Stiller earned a few laughs from me but earned little else. Robert Downey Jr. delivers lines like “Never go full retard” so seriously, it is impossible not to laugh, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t replaceable either.
However, not everyone is poorly cast. The real stars of the film were the supporting and lesser known actors. Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Matthew McConaughey (as Speedman’s agent Rick Peck) and Tom Cruise (as studio exec Les Grossman) steal nearly every scene they’re in. They are so outrageous and deliver said outrageousness with such conviction, it is impossible not to believe them and even harder to not laugh heartily.
Sometimes, every so often, it’s okay to watch a movie that doesn’t challenge the mind – it is just meant to tickle the watcher a little. Tropic Thunder, while behaving mostly like an unfunny uncle who tries to do stupid things to make his niece laugh (you know the type), still managed to tickle my funny bone. It’s not a movie I’d say you have to run to the theaters to see but it is certainly worth a DVD rental when there is little else to do.