Film Reviews

Tropic Thunder Ben Stiller

Rating - 3/10

Hollywood satirizing itself is nothing new. Arguably, some of Hollywood’s greatest comedic work willingly jests and openly trashes its conceits and its penchant for excess. Films like Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950), The Player (Altman, 1992), Singin’ in the Rain (Donen and Kelly, 1952) and Sullivan’s Travels (Sturges, 1941) immediately come to mind as classic examples of the Hollywood showbiz satire. Tropic Thunder however does not.

Written and directed by its star Ben Stiller, the film concerns a group of prima donna Hollywood actors who are engaged in translating Vietnam Vet John Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) best-selling Vietnam War memoir Tropic Thunder onto the big screen. After a few weeks in Southeast Asia, the troubled production headed by inexperienced British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is hemorrhaging money and is a month behind budget. More problematically, Cockburn is unable to discipline his all-star cast, which includes faded action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Australian Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.)

Inundated with criticism from hard-nosed, profanity-spewing studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), Cockburn decides to shoot the film guerilla-style by dropping his high-profile cast into the middle of a stretch of Vietnamese jungle laced with digital cameras and forcing them to act their roles. Trouble soon arises, as the cast find themselves obliviously in the middle of a heroin-producing epicenter.
Opening with a few wry faux trailers satirizing Hollywood sequels and staid dramas, such as the ersatz erotic religious chamber piece Satan’s Alley, Tropic Thunder starts off promisingly. Unfortunately, once the actual film begins, much of the film’s ironic energy has been quickly spent. Tropic Thunder is built around the assumption that the film’s fictional set of actors believe everything around them is part of the filming process. Yet, before the hour mark, the film has long since strayed from its initial premise in order to fully engage in Stiller’s redundant, one-note brand of comedy.
Fetid and self-congratulatory in its approach, Tropic Thunder is the antithesis of Hollywood’s greatest satires. There’s plenty of bark in Stiller’s film, but no real bite. Perhaps this is because Stiller is too much of a Hollywood insider. Overwhelmingly, the film’s specific targets are safe and predictable. While Stiller is eager to chastise the pampered Hollywood celebrity or serious-minded thespians, he rarely seeks to attack the institutions or culture that continues to prop up these individuals. Even Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain offered a more acidic indictment of Hollywood than Tropic Thunder.
Stiller’s film routinely ridicules gross-out comedies, staid performers like Russell Crowe and contemplative art house cinema, but unsurprisingly never touches on anything remotely close to his past film projects. In contrast to The Player or Ricky Gervais’ television series Extras, none of the performers mug their own personas or ridicule their own filmographies. Despite being marketed as a scathing satire of Hollywood culture, Tropic Thunder is really just a big, dumb, loud action-comedy blockbuster that celebrates other big, dumb, loud action-comedy blockbusters.
This would be acceptable, if Tropic Thunder was actually funny or even remotely interesting beyond its opening stages. But unfortunately it is not. Aside from a few pops at celebrity adoptions and a joke involving a Giant Panda, Tropic Thunder is woefully stale in its humor. The jokes, an amalgamation of F-bombs and noxious sight gags designed to appease the 18-35 male age bracket, are nasty, rude and crude. The taboo button-pushing assault quickly loses its luster, as the script penned by Stiller, Etan Cohen (no relation to Ethan Coen) and Justin Theroux breaches into obtuse tastelessness.
The film’s lack of craft and guile reaches into its performances. Stiller rarely strays from his present blunt comedic persona; Jack Black continues to be wastefully misspent since appearing in Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity (2000); and Hollywood once again cannot seem to fathom what to do with Steve Coogan. Matthew McConaughey resorts to playing himself, while Cruise’s Harvey Weinstein-esque executive Les Grossman perspires into little more than a foul-mouthed PR stunt aimed at career rejuvenation.
Arguably, the film’s only redeeming factors are Nick Nolte as Tropic Thunder’s grizzled author, Brandon Soo Hoo as a pint-sized drug lord and Robert Downey Jr as a multi-Academy Award-winning Australian Method actor named Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes surgical skin pigmentation in order to play a black soldier. Although neither not nearly as likeable, nor surprisingly as funny as his earlier 2008 performance in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Downey Jr. at least keeps the film somewhat interesting.
With its forced humor and expected objects of jest, Tropic Thunder lacks any genuine comedic punch. To compensate for its wafer-thin plot and overworked clichés, Stiller resorts to lumbering the film with Bruckheimer-styled explosions and action sequences that denigrates, rather than amplifies the film’s sullied comment on Hollywood’s self-absorbed excesses. Neither a well-thought out satire of Hollywood institutions nor the war film genre in general, Tropic Thunder is a sprawling, indolent mess.
After viewing this chaotic blunder, one only wishes Stiller had filmed Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire in Satan’s Alley in its place.