Originally uploaded by Thomas Roche
Tropic Thunder is a mixed bag, hillarious at times, tedious and unsuccessful at others. Mostly, though, it’s entertaining, with an uneven but still brilliant script, and some of the performances are amazing.
In case you missed the log line, this flick is about a cast of actors making a Vietnam flick whose slightly insane director (Steve Coogan), under fire from the studio boss (Tom Cruise), drops them off in the jungle to shoot cinema verite style, which they do especially well once they’re discovered and attacked by drug dealers. Ben Stiller is the dim-bulb action star; Jack Black’s the heroin-addled funnyman of tasteless fart-comedies; Undeclared‘s Jay Baruchel is the gawky acting nerd; Brandon Jackson is Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to cross over into acting while promoting his energy drink Booty Sweat; and Robert Downey Jr. is the unbelievably pretentious Australian method actor who undergoes a controversial skin pigmentation procedure to be able to play an African-American soldier. Nick Nolte’s grizzled lunatic Four Leaf Tayback, who wrote the Nam book the war movie is based on; Danny McBride is the overzealous practical-effects (explosions) guy, and Matthew McConaughey is Stiller’s agent. They’re all mostly great.
The script’s skewering of action movie cliches lapses too far into those cliches, and way too often uses them lazily as plot devices, to really nail it. But plenty else about the script is amazingly clever, and lots of it high-fucking-larious.
But it’s the performances that make it a great flick despite its shortcomings. Stiller and Black are predictably Stiller and Black respectively — Stiller good, Black kinda OK-whatever in my book. Baruchel, Jackson, Coogan, Nolte and McBride are all fantastic, filling the supporting roles with guts. But it’s Downey who steals the show, his ill-conceived minstrel-show method acting the funniest spanking of the acting craft since Waiting for Guffman or Lisa Picard is Famous. Less successful but still interesting is Tom Cruise’s balding asshole studio executive. He’s funny, but there’s way too much of him.
The weirdest thing about the controversy surrounding this movie is that it’s not Downey’s performance that’s really pissed people off, nor is it Black’s character’s tendency to play large and consequently flatulent people. What started the controversy mill was the fact that the one successful dramatic turn by Stiller’s character Tugg Speedman was a goofy tearjerker called Simple Jack, in which Speedman hamhandedly plays a developmentally disabled character in a crazed attempt to be a “serious” actor. This has not proven popular with advocates for the mentally disabled.
I had a developmentally disabled aunt who passed away a few years ago, so I’m sometimes a little oversensitive to this type of stuff. I do not use the r-word lightly, nor do I get off on what great actors Hanks and Hoffman are for playing mentally challenged people; overall, I just find it annoying and exploitive, which might be why I found this skewering of the Hollywood Oscar grope so hillarious. I find it unfortunate that it offended people, particularly a group that finds it so hard to get any respect… but whatever. Actors deserve all the shit we can give them, and if Downey’s faux-black character can get a signoff from the NAACP, then I really think that disabled advocacy groups calling the movie “hate speech” is… how should I put it? A bit much.
The movie’s pretty offensive across the board, and frankly no actually disabled character appears on screen. What’s being made fun of is actors’ need to impress themselves and their colleagues with oh-so-sensitive portrayals of the mentally challenged (or whoever).
Overall, Thunder‘s at times weak, at times hillarious, and often brilliant, and if it offends you, well… duh.