A bunch of movie stars shooting a Vietnam war movie are dropped off in a real-life jungle to offset the escalating budget. Its not long before guerrilla filmmaking turns into genuine guerrilla warfare
There was a time when comedy was the cheap and cheerful genre. Sure, when the Murphys and Carreys hit the mega-big-time, they’d eat up a majority of the budget ($5,000 per gurn or fart), but that aside, all you needed was a rib-cracking script and a well-stocked prop room: custard pies, water spritzers, fake jism, puppet gophers… These days, however, comedy’s become an expensive business. Last year we had the FX-stuffed flop Evan Almighty, in which there was more CG than jokes. This year it’s Tropic Thunder, which looks like it’s incinerated half a jungle to bring you its laughs. And in terms of looks, at least, it’s money well spent.
In his effort to properly pastiche the action/war genre, director Ben Stiller has hired esteemed lensman John Toll, a man whose style of cinematography is best exemplified by the rippling visual poetry of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. A gag about a mistimed pyrotechnic climax (inspired, surely, by the legendary tale of Sergio Leone’s bridge-blowing cock-up while shooting The Good The Bad And The Ugly) results in a chain-explosion that tops Apocalypse Now’s symphony in napalm; a pisstake of the clichéd ‘control-room’ cutaway is harshly uplit and cobalt-tinged to perfectly mimic Tony Scott or Michael Bay’s slickest melodramatics. This has to be one of the best-shot comedies ever made, and is visually leagues ahead of anything Stiller has ever done before. But when it comes to the characters and - crucially - the gags themselves, Stiller squats on very familiar territory.
A neat trio of fake trailers introduces the three main players: action meathead Tugg Speedman (Stiller), rotund funny-guy Jeff ‘Fats’ Portnoy (Jack Black), and Australian Oscar-magnet Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), who gets the first big laugh with his teaser for Satan’s Alley, a period tale of forbidden love between medieval monks in which Lazarus and Tobey Maguire (“Co-winner of the MTV Best Kiss Award 2002”) exchange lustful glances and hungry lip-twitches as they fondle each other’s rosaries to the cheesy Gregorian-breakbeat of ’90s dance pompsters Enigma. These trailers are a good indication of what’s to follow in the main feature: Downey Jr.’s Lazarus doesn’t just get the first big laugh; he gets the only big laughs. Black’s Portnoy is a waste of script-pages. Aside from a graphic monologue about what specific acts of fellatory degradation he’ll perform for a “drug” fix (it’s never quite made clear what precisely is his white powder of choice - or rather, compulsion), Black has little to do other than act strung-out, pass wind and do his red-faced, bug-eyed schtick, while loosely sending up the late Chris Farley (a reference that won’t mean much to the majority of British viewers). It’s also hard to see precisely how Fats fits in; if there’s a good joke in the process by which a Farley-esque comedian is cast in a supposedly serious war movie, it’s not told here.
Tugg Speedman, meanwhile, is just another of Ben Stiller’s self-unaware idiots: all vanity, of dubious sanity. We’ve seen the male-model iteration in Zoolander; the health-freak take in DodgeBall; now we get the action-star version - although, strictly speaking, we’ve had that before in the form of ‘Tom Crooze’, the Tom Cruise stunt-double Stiller created for an MTV skit to tie in with the release of M:I-2, and who was no doubt Tugg in a previous sketch. When his co-stars sense that something’s amiss after being dropped into genuinely deadly territory, it’s up to Speedman to insist that it’s all part of the script and charge into the jungle with only action-hero bravado and blank rounds to rely on. We’ve been here before, of course (¡Three Amigos!, The Man Who Knew Too Little), and while that’s good for a few giggles, there’s little mileage in it.
Worthy support comes from the straight-men of the ensemble - Brandon T. Jackson as “Booty Sweat”-peddling rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (groan) and Knocked Up’s Jay Baruchel as the nerdy one - while an on-form Matthew McConaughey manfully makes the Owen Wilson role his own as Tugg’s over-supportive agent. But it’s Tom Cruise, as abusive studio boss Len Grossman, and Downey Jr.’s Lazarus who will fuel the most post-screening pub talk. Buried under a liver-spotted bald-patch, beard and glasses, Cruise cuts loose Magnolia-style as he screams insults at his underlings (“A nutless monkey could do your job!”). He should consider making more forays into all-out comedy, like his Magnolia co-star John C. Reilly; although perhaps he should have pulled back on the comedy rap-dancing - that’s just creepy.
Downey Jr., meanwhile, is just superb as the over-precious actor who becomes so enmeshed in his misguided Method that even when his life is at risk, he can’t bring himself to drop character - he doesn’t do that “until the DVD commentary”. That his character’s character is a gruff, cigar-chewing black dude has already stirred up a fair amount of controversy, and will no doubt fuel blogosphere rants for weeks after the film’s release. There’s no getting away from the fact that a white actor has blacked up, a device for which there should really be no excuse in this day and age. But then, all the best comedy flirts with offence, and it’s testament to Downey Jr.’s meaty acting chops that Lazarus’ jiving makes you wince without ever feeling genuine discomfort. Brandon T. Jackson certainly helps, supplying the much-needed voice of reason, rightly complaining about the lead black part being given to “Crocodile Dundee” and, crucially, never making his peace with Lazarus. And Downey Jr. convinces us completely that Lazarus is such a twit that his self-absorbed concerns with the craft leave him unable to understand that his performance is just deeply wrong. So it’s not all jokes about barbecued crawfish and references to “you people”; we also see Lazarus as a thesp so choked by his own pretension that he’ll cough up crap like, “I don’t read the script, the script reads me.”
It’s only really with Lazarus that Stiller and his co-writers satirise the absurdity of Hollywood to any great effect; their other observations feel a little stale, not reaching far beyond ‘studio bosses are greedy’ or ‘movie stars take drugs’. Past the requisite scatology, blood ’n’ guts gross-out and animal cruelty, the jests will only nonplus: why is the chief baddie a little kid? Why does Stiller insist on having Speedman do his buck-toothed, "retard" Simple Jack act long after its comedy half-life has expired? Why did Nick Nolte even bother turning up? It’s not that Tropic Thunder is an Evan Almighty. Far from it, in fact. It’s just, given the pedigree, you can’t help leaving the cinema feeling like you’re owed a few more great jokes.
There are moments of comedy grandeur, but this isnt as consistently funny as youd hope. Nevertheless, Downey Jr.s Kirk Lazarus is instantly up there with the comedy greats.