Tropic Thunder (2008)
Starring: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Brandon Soo Hoo, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise
Directed By: Ben Stiller
Tropic Thunder features four things that tend to turn me off of comedies: it’s expensive, high concept, heavily reliant on inside Hollywood humour, and it heavily features Ben Stiller. Any of those four elements could be enough to turn me against a comedy, but all four? There probably wasn’t much chance that I’d be into this one.
So why see it? Robert Downey Jr‘s turn as an acclaimed Australian actor who undergoes cosmetic surgery to turn him into a black man to star in the film-within-the-film intrigued me (as Downey Jr has been on fire of late), and I hoped the presence of assorted Judd Apatow-players like Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Bill Hader might help overcome any Stiller-induced shortcomings (I’m about 50/50 on Jack Black in terms of enjoying his films, so his presence is a wash). But mostly, I went because a friend had a free pass and my wife was working that night, so it seemed like something to do to kill an evening.
I suppose by that very limited expectation for entertainment, Tropic Thunder wasn’t a complete failure. But for the most part, my misgivings going into the film were confirmed by the film itself. The expensive thing isn’t a snobbish response to blockbuster movies, but rather is because with comedies, laughter can’t be bought. Other than talent expenses, humour is a cheap commodity, so what tends to happen with big budget comedies is that the focus that should go into finding the humour goes elsewhere (in the case of this film, it’s a lot of explosions and location costs, along with the three stars I’m guessing) and the total cost of the film seems to have an inverse relationship on the amount of laughs to be had (a great example of this would be last year’s flop Evan Almighty). At an estimated $70 million budget, Tropic Thunder isn’t egregiously expensive, but you can definitely see the money on screen where I’d prefer to see humour (by comparison, Pineapple Express, another action-comedy, had an estimated budget of $25 million).
As for high concept, I find comedies that rely on high concepts often lose the jokes in the attempt to tell thin stories that can’t sustain through full movies. Tropic Thunder definitely fits that description. The movie follows a big Hollywood production on location as it attempts to film a prestige adaptation of a Vietnam War book. The production is way overbudget due to the difficulties brought on by primadonna stars like Stiller’s action hero Tugg Speedman, Downey Jr’s method acting Kirk Lazarus, and Black’s drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy. When director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) tries to bring the production back under budget by stranding his actors out in the jungle in an attempt to film the action guerrilla-style, hilarity ensues when they run into real guerrilla fighters, who confuse the actors with soldiers while the actors confuse them as part of the movie.
Which brings me to my biggest problem with the movie, the movie-within-the-movie thing that rarely works. Hollywood loves making movies about itself, even though it has rarely been proven that many people outside of Hollywood give a damn. It doesn’t help that the satire rarely rises above the obvious “movie stars are pampered children” or “actors take themselves too seriously” tropes. There isn’t much here that hasn’t already been done by Entourage, The TV Set, or any of the other Hollywood satires other than the addition of Ben Stiller’s annoying exaggerated energy and Robert Downey Jr in blackface.
Downey Jr’s commitment to the role that is designed to poke fun at Method actors who take their roles too seriously is impressive. The problem is that the character is basically one long joke, repeated throughout the movie ad nauseum (one notable exception is a conversation between his Lazerus and Stiller’s Speedman that dissects the award process, which also was a notable example of original Hollywood satire). Basically the joke is the same as it appears in the trailer: polished Aussie actor plays a jive-talking black man, while his fellow actors (especially actual African-American Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino) remark on how crazy he is to remain in character throughout their ordeal, rinse, repeat.
If I thought it was at all intentional, I’d think the most impressive piece of satire would be the cast’s meta way of playing disinterested actors by coming across as disinterested themselves. While Downey Jr puts a lot of work into his character, Stiller is basically doing a slightly-smarter Derek Zoolander warmed over, and Jack Black mostly looks like he’s waiting for the check to clear. Oddly, this means that in a film that heavily promotes its three main stars, a lot of the heavy-lifting plotwise falls to Jay Baruchel, who is a highlight of the film.
The absolute highlight, however, is neither Downey Jr or Baruchel, but rather the unadvertised cameo by Tom Cruise. His contribution is uproariously hilarious, as the studio head financing the film-within-the-film. Full credit goes to Cruise, who has spent the last few years looking like the most humourless guy in Hollywood and delivers a role that basically succeeds simply for how stupid he allows himself to look. It’s a part that isn’t quite funny by itself, but instead is funny because of who is doing it. Replace Cruise with an actual comedian, and it could easily be annoying quickly. But because it’s him, the laughter comes in a “oh my god, I can’t believe Tom Cruise is doing this” kind of way.
There were a few other laughs to be had in the film, but there were also stretches where I was completely uninterested in the movie, checking my watch to see how much was left. The last thing the world needs is another Hollywood satire, so I expect to see another one follow in Tropic Thunder‘s footsteps in another year at the least.
If you’re a fan of Stiller’s previous directorial feature, Zoolander, then I suspect you’ll be into this one as well. But be forewarned: once you get past the audacity of Robert Downey Jr as a black man, or Ben Stiller not knowing that his character is no longer in a movie, you’ll have to wait awhile for new jokes to surface.