Tropic Thunder is one humongous vanity project for Ben Stiller. His initials aren't BS for nothing. If you can't get enough of bouncing Ben, Tropic Thunder is the movie for you. Ben Stiller acted in, co-wrote, produced, and directed Tropic Thunder.
Ben's acting is patented startled smugness, his writing is sloppy, and his direction is disjointed. And one thing for certain -- Ben has never seen a close-up of himself that he didn't love. Incoherence may be the major quality of Ben Stiller. Stiller also had the promising idea of surrounding himself with a cast of big-name star power -- Robert Downey, Jr., Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and even Tom Cruise. But all the talented actors are like first-rate ingredients, and instead of a chef, you get Stiller. He turns out an overcooked stew. And then he spills it all over the place.
The basic plot of Tropic Thunder has potential. The script idea is a good one, but you'd have to jettison the omnipresent Stiller to make a good movie. He's everywhere muckin it up. Tropic Thunder is about a quintet of egotistical, neurotic actors who are making a war movie based on a book by a veteran of the Vietnam conflict. When the movie bogs down, the consulting writer (Nick Nolte) convinces the director (Steve Coogan) to take the five actors and drop them off in the jungle to shoot the movie guerrilla style. Stiller fails to show us how the pampered actors blithely agree to go out on location -- they just suddenly are sitting docilely on an airborne heliocopter. In the jungle they don't realize they are under attack by the contemporary army of drug lord; they think it is part of the Vietnam movie experience. Stiller, et al. poke fun at the mores and cliches of Hollywood. But any one who calls Tropic Thunder biting satire doesn't understand satire. It's mostly softball parody with a smirk. It doesn't sting at all.
There is one clever conversation about actors playing retarded characters -- "never go fully retarded" -- that has offended some viewers. It's also by far the best written dialogue in the entire film. But much of the dialogue is crass, self-indulgent, and improvised. Improvisation always runs the danger of clunky crudeness, and Tropic Thunder is a prime example. The haphazard script is credited to Stiller (of course), and Justin Theroux, a tv actor turned scribbler. Tv writer Etan Cohen also scribbled.
The actors give uneven perfomances as they try to fill out their parodied characters. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Kirk Lazarus, a Russell Crowe-type, an Australian actor who throws himself completely into his roles. For the war movie, he has undergone pigmentation change and speaks Ebonics as one of the two African-American members of the group. Brandon T. Jackson the other African-American plays Alpa Chino (I don't think it's worth asking you to pronounce it). Alpa keeps complaining about Lazarus's role-playing.
Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, an Eddie Murphy-type actor, who plays many flatulent characters. Don't worry, there's plenty of flatulence, urination, puking, to satisfy any fan of those particular talents. When Jay Baruchel who plays the novice actor seems like the rational one, you probably have trouble. Where's Judd Apatow when you need him? Matthew McConaughey is pleasant as an agent. Tom Cruise plays the foul-mouthed studio head, who likes to rap and dance, in an extended routine that goes beyond its time. The Cruise gimmick would be more daring if he hadn't already appeared in an offbeat role in Magnolia (1999).
But all actors great and small have to step aside for Ben Stiller, who plays Tugg Speedman, a Sylvester Stallone-type -- and for a bit becomes a Marlon Brando-type in Apocalypse Now. Stiller as Brando -- that's not a stretch, that's nuts.
In a sense Stiller is for comedy what Stallone is for Rambo. But how can you parody parody? Stiller tries his lamest. Ben Stiller is a cut above Paulie Shore and Rob Schneider, but he's a cut below Adam Sandler. And well below Will Ferrell.
Tropic Thunder was shot in Hawaii and cost more than $90 million. It's one of those films that seem like the cast enjoyed themselves more than some in the audience. Maybe you had to be there.
Night at the Museum 2 is Ben Stiller's next movie. After that how about doing a movie about an actor/director who is trying to make a satire, but doesn't know how to? Now that could be a satire.
What is most distressing is to think of what all the talented independent filmmakers could have done with the money Stiller squandered.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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