Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder owes so much to so many different films that have come before it, one might suspect it of being either too doctrinaire in its veneration of those past cinematic explorations of the behind-the-scenes workings of the nightmare factory of Hollywood, whether they be Vincent Minelli's The Bad and the Beautiful or Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife or Blake Edwards' S.O.B., or too blithely irreverent in its sending-up of war epics to properly absorb its own constructed conspectus of features of that kind. What Stiller has done, and succeeded tremendously at, is making a film that aims directly at all of the craziness that influences the actors of Tinseltown. Tropic Thunder encapsulates all of the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of actors, whether they be of limited talent, attached to a certain genre of movies, or the haughty thespians who approach the art of their craft with statements of philosophical gravity and self-importance, though typically amounting to little more than the musings and recommendations of your latest fortune cookie.
Filling the roles of the former type, Stiller portrays fading action star Tugg Speedman, whose action franchise has run out of gas after being diluted with more and more feckless and wasteful sequels after one or two worthwhile entries (think of the Alien franchise as just one example of a long-ago sensational saga reduced to one instance of being watered down after another) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a base comedian enjoying success with his abysmal Fatties comedy series. Speedman's recent adventure in the land of Oscar-bait pretentiousness, a risible drama about a mentally retarded farm boy called Simple Jack, received a chorus of jeers from critics and most likely received numerous Raspberries. Looking for something more amenable to his physicality, Speedman thinks the film Tropic Thunder is his best bet, based on the book of Vietnam War hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). Portnoy wants to prove he can play something other than a man whose success is derived from his fatty flatulence franchise.
Filling the role of the second type, Robert Downey, Jr. plays the volatile Australian multi-Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, with steely blue eyes and blonde hair, who has himself physically transformed through a chemical skin treatment so he can play a black sergeant charged with rescuing Tayback. Downey, Jr. is adept at portraying risk-taking mavericks and skewering pretense. Therefore his dual role as actor and actor-as-character could not be better suited for the sardonic and flippantly free-wheeling star of Zodiac and this summer's opening tent-pole salvo, Iron Man. (A certain line seems to stand as a breaking of character on two different levels, as Lazarus, when called upon realizing just who he is, states, still vocally in character, “I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as the other dude!”) Lazarus's off-screen antics are modeled on Russell Crowe's bad-boy behavior. His remarks about the intricacies of acting recall the high-minded phraseology of Marlon Brando and other highly regarded actors who have spoken of the vocation in radiantly beneficent and almost pious altruism.
For approximately a year now, speculative theories about the failures of the war films that have been released have occupied many Hollywood spectators' thoughts. Do people not want to see films about the Iraq War? Is this limited to American moviegoers? If the main prohibitive has to do with the Iraq War, why did a film about World War II released in 2006 like Flags of Our Fathers perform so poorly? Tropic Thunder does not confront the question of the Iraq War's souring of the war genre, and films about terrorism, with the public, but it does make an exceptionally intelligent point within its first minutes. A sequence that pays satirical but almost loving homage to iconic and modern war films such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon makes a point easily read by people most responsive to the biting wit of satire. Anything ripe for satirical lampooning or parodying must be on some level adrift or at least construed as an institution, trend (artistic or otherwise) or way of thought that has been found wanting or at the very least exhausted. What Tropic Thunder reveals in those opening minutes is that the war film as defined as it has been must undergo the metamorphosis entailed in the inherently protean sarcous of cinematic art before it can be considered impressive. For those pondering the conspicuous shortcomings of the war picture in these recent years, this film serves as an equally persuasive compilation of pointed reasonings for the war film's recent decline and an affirmatively loving tribute to the pictures that today still standout in the last few decades.
Where Stiller's film metaphorically takes its gloves off to a certain degree is in its depiction of a ruthless, imperiously and hilariously profane Hollywood producer named Les Grossman, played in a “fat suit” by a bombastically aggressive Tom Cruise. The scenes that follow Grossman's caustic outbursts of rage and grotesque gesticulations are sublimely arresting; Cruise's performance is imbued with tumultuously vulgar swagger, standing as a dark and constant contrast to the effetely sensitive and weak introspectiveness of the acting troupe that is finally stranded in the jungle, attempting to fend for its collective life. Matthew McConaughey's performance as Speedman's persistent agent, Rick Peck, is, simply the best turn he's given in a long time.
Like the better cinematic satires of the past, Stiller's work accomplishes numerous cultural and societal endeavors. The controversy--stirred by people who supposedly took preemptive offense at Robert Downey, Jr.'s “black-face” performance--begun months before the film was released blindly assailed the skin-deep impropriety. What Downey, Jr.'s turn reveals, however, is vastly more insightful and remarkable than many likely believed was possible. Playing a Vietnam-era black man archetype, the sergeant has a hairdo complete with ostentatious sideburns that recalls Fred Williamson, gruffly barking orders to his men. Examining the Vietnam War's hand in accidentally assisting in equalizing the scales of American racial dynamics and shifting cultural awareness in the time of the modern civil rights movement, politicized by both “hawks” and “doves,” Stiller convincingly recalls the complex and varying portrayals of white-black soldiering in Vietnam War films ranging from Apocalypse Now to Hamburger Hill (the latter of which provides the line Downey, Jr.'s black sergeant regurgitates, “Ain't nothin' but a thang.”)
Practically every component of Tropic Thunder seems to have been assembled by Stiller to highlight the commendable but perhaps imposingly intimidating characteristics of certain films. John Toll, whose credits include Braveheart, The Thin Red Line and The Last Samurai, here lights with exquisite lushness that brings the jungle to cinematic life. The essential theme of revived spirits, symbolized and perhaps minimized by the allegorical framing device of professional career repackaging for the three main actors, takes on a fresher and brighter meaning juxtaposed with the honeyed “satire” that almost never touches high dudgeon but rather a more invigorating coming to terms with who we are. As in the aforementioned sequence of self-discovery for Lazarus, the film takes on the beleaguered psyches of the group of actors in a seductively laughable and ludicrous manner, while allowing the narrative to be sharply informed by the insecurities and anxieties that wrack these performers in a way that partly reminds one of films as diverse as To Be or Not to Be, The Seventh Seal and Day for Night.
If Tropic Thunder's bark is worse than its bite, and if it fails to emerge as one of the more viciously cutting satires to be made about the movie business, perhaps this was its destiny as a postmodern picture that, like other more recent satirical efforts, seemed to both condemn and congratulate consumerism and the amorality of the often ill-defined world of “big business.” What it lacks in bitterness, it more than makes up for in amusement, charm and bawdy hilarity. As one who has never found Stiller or his movies particularly enjoyable, this is a redemptive picture, charged by winning charisma and cognizance.