By Josh Moss
OK, so by now you know the comedy “Tropic Thunder” is about some prissy actors who travel to Southeast Asia to film “the greatest war movie ever.” You’ve also probably heard that Ironman himself, Robert Downey Jr., plays Kirk Lazarus, an Australian Method actor who dyes his skin to portray an African American sergeant. Surprisingly, that hasn’t been the picture’s most controversial element.
In an attempt to become a legit actor, Ben Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, once starred as an intellectually disabled farmhand in “Simple Jack.” You know, the goal being that he’d snag an Oscar nomination. The faux movie has outraged the Coalition of National Disability Organizations, and protestors picketed the premier of “Tropic Thunder.” To be fair, the movie’s goal is to satirize the crooked and unsympathetic Hollywood machine, from the agents to the studio suits to the delusional actors themselves. Much of “Tropic Thunder” tiptoes the line between satire and mockery, and, frankly, the “Simple Jack” humor — which isn’t amusing to begin with — is overdone to the point of becoming overtly offensive.
That’s too bad because the uproar is overshadowing a film that is downright hilarious. Stiller directs (and co-produces) “Tropic Thunder,” which he co-wrote with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Cohen, of Cohen brothers fame). We’ll let you decide if Stiller’s past directing duties — “Reality Bites,” “The Cable Guy,” “Zoolander” — stack up. We don’t think so.
Part of the reason is because this story is so funny. “Tropic Thunder,” the movie within the movie, is an adaptation of a Vietnam War tale, penned by war hero — or is he? — Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, adding a nice touch of crazy). Stiller’s Speedman, the face of the dying superhero franchise “Scorcher,” signs on hoping to resuscitate his career. He plays Four Leaf and is joined on set with four other actors.
There’s Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy, an addict who calls his drugs jellybeans. He’s famous for “The Fatties,” an Eddie Murphy-esque franchise in which Portnoy plays all the characters...and farts a lot. You’ll recognize Jay Baruchel, as Kevin Sandusky, from “Knocked Up” and “Million Dollar Baby.” Relative newcomer Brandon T. Jackson is Alpa Chino, a rapper who peddles his own energy drink, “Booty Sweat.” Both Jackson and Baruchel have no problem trading laughs with the comedy heavyweights.
Then there’s Downey Jr. His Lazarus is the “real actor” of the group, winner of five Academy Awards, including one for his role in “Satan’s Alley” as a priest attracted to Tobey Maguire. (“I’ve been a very, very bad boy, Father.” Ha!) What can we say? Downey Jr. gives a no-holds-barred performance as Sgt. Osiris. It helps that Jackson’s character is around to tell Lazarus how ridiculous his Method acting has become. It’s the best supporting work we’ve seen this year besides Heath Ledger as the Joker.
Just five days into shooting, the film is “a month behind schedule.” So the director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), drops the prima donnas into the middle of the jungle and says he’s going to shoot “Tropic Thunder” guerilla-style. It becomes all too real when they stumble upon an actual heroine cartel known as Flaming Dragon, led by a 12-year-old.
Matthew McConaughey gets just the right amount of screen time as the Peck, Speedman’s agent. Danny McBride scores plenty of laughs as Cody, the special-effects dude on set who likes to blow things up and who almost blinded Jamie Lee Curtis while filming “Freaky Friday.” Finally, we must mention Tom Cruise. That's right, Tom Cruise (!). His character, Les Grossman, has financed “Tropic Thunder.” He’s fat, bald and vulgar and enjoys dancing to the occasional hip-hop track. You’ll hardly be able to recognize Cruise. It sort of reminds us of his role in “Magnolia,” and it’s nice to know that he doesn’t have to take himself so seriously all the time. Next to Downey Jr., he’s the reason to see the movie.
And you should, because it’s one of the best — if not the best — comedy of the year. Hopefully you can ignore — and not tolerate — the offensiveness of “Simple Jack." Should be easy, as that’s the only part of “Tropic Thunder” that isn’t funny.
3 fleurs di lis out of 4