Rating: 3 stars
Never has the expression “no guts, no glory” been more apt than in describing the new comedy Tropic Thunder.
The film demonstrates tons of guts—it has one character in blackface, another making fun of a mentally disabled man, and yet a third who is a vulgarian Jewish film executive. (What, no jokes about killing pandas? Oh wait. . .it has that, too.). With those risks comes a fair amount of glory. When Tropic Thunder is funny, it is awesomely so. However, when it fails, everyone involved looks like a bunch of schmucks.
Directed and co-written by Ben Stiller (who also stars), Tropic Thunder depicts a film crew making a war movie in Vietnam. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, the fading action star hoping for big screen legitimacy. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comic actor (and closet crackhead) best known for farting on cue. Most famously, Robert Downey Jr. plays Australian method actor and multiple Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes a “controversial” skin-dying procedure to play a black sergeant.
When newbie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides his actors are too spoiled for their roles, he sends them deep into the jungle, rigging it with scary obstacles set up by the film’s gung ho special effects guy (comedic flavor-of-the-month Danny McBride). But unbeknownst to Cockburn, a group of drug warlords are hiding in the jungle, putting the cast in real danger.
Okay, so here’s what works: Robert Downey Jr.’s Lazarus is a brilliant send-up on the kind of method actor whose “selfless” immersion into a role is actually a form of giant egoism. Of course, a white actor playing black, even in a satire, is a huge risk, but Downey Jr. insulates himself by being so damn good. He’s so funny, so smart, so committed to the role that you have no choice but to sit back and watch the man work.
But here’s what doesn’t work: Ben Stiller’s Simple Jack. This, you see, was Tugg Speedman’s first attempt at legitimacy, playing a stuttering farm hand with a bowl cut and buck teeth. (The film is riffing on the notion that actors who play disabled characters often win Oscars.) Tugg, not exactly a mensa candidate himself, got wildly lambasted by the critics. “Never play the full retard,” Lazarus sagely advises him, noting that Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for Rain Man, while Sean Penn tanked in I Am Sam. Okay, so far, so funny—even if I felt a little uneasy over the use of that insensitive word. (Hey, I was an All in the Family fan, too.) But that should’ve been the end of it. Instead, for reasons I won’t disclose, Stiller plays a big chunk of the movie in his Simple Jack persona. Those scenes are painfully unfunny and offensive—a case of a not-so-great-to-begin-with joke taken to an awful extreme. (Not surprisingly, a coalition of disabled rights groups have called for a boycott of the film.)
And here’s what sort of works: Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman, the profane and blustery (not to mention fat and bald) studio exec who only cares about the bottom line. For Cruise, taking this part was a no-brainer: He’s doing something over-the-top and buzzworthy. As for the performance itself? It’s undeniably funny, but I’m not sure if it’s funny because Cruise is good, or because it’s such a departure for the famously uptight star. (If, for example, your boss came to the company party in drag, you would find it funny even if your boss wasn’t really a great drag queen, if you know what I mean.) Like Downey Jr., Cruise commits to his part fully. He’s just not as good at it.
Still, in a summer where Judd Apatow’s plotless, low-concept comedies have soared, it’s refreshing to see such a high-concept comedy in action. When it works, Tropic Thunder is by far the funniest film of the summer (please, film promoters, don’t take that quote out of context). When it fails, at least it does so prodigiously.