Tropic Thunder

October 4 2008 at 6:35 pm (Cinema reviews)

The first thing to remember about Tropic Thunder is it’s a comedy. You have to keep telling yourself that when you’re watching it because there’s so much going on, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s actually the war epic it’s satirising.


Take the story for instance. A rookie director (Steve Coogan) is struggling to get a group of pain-in-the-ass prima donnas and inexperienced no-hopers to fully commit to an adaptation of the war memoirs of a Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte). Due to plot points too convoluted to go into here, the actors find themselves in the middle of the jungle hunted and eventually captured by an all-too-real dangerous gang of drug traders, although they still think they’re making the film ‘guerrilla-style.’


That’s just the basic premise. There’s actually a lot more to it than just that, and that’s where the film lets itself down. Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed and starred in this film, the idea for which he had on the set of Empire Of The Sun in the mid-‘80s. It would appear that since that time, the film has snowballed, picking up a larger and larger budget, and bigger and bigger stars until it just couldn’t get any more ludicrous. It’s apparent that, as with many labours of love, Stiller just got too close to it.


He does deserve some credit, however, for being so selfless with the dishing out of gossip-worthy performances. Although this is his baby, he must have known that he wasn’t going to be the person that everyone would talk about. Anyone not briefed on the film before sitting down will do a good few double takes and gasp with ohmigodisthatspiderman surprise.


Tom Cruise’s cameo that’s actually more of a pivotal supporting character is notable for its audaciousness. It’s great watching him as a rude, fat, balding, bespectacled studio boss who spends most of his screen time, shouting, swearing and (ugh) dancing and he does get many of the best lines, but it’s all a bit ostentatious. Stiller seems to be saying ‘Look who I’ve got, and look what I’ve got him to do!’


Of course, what everyone talks about is Robert Downey Jr. as Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus. The whole aura surrounding Lazarus’ back story and the story of his character transformation is the highlight of the film, but it also underlines what’s wrong with it.


There’s so much to take in that it’s exhausting when it should be, you know, funny. The fake trailers that open the film don’t just set up the tone, they scream ‘laugh at this satire.’ For a film about the craziness of the Hollywood system that purports to be so knowing and self-reflexive about, it’s a bit hypocritical. During the last 30 minutes or so, the already half-assed comedy is ditched in favour of all out action, complete with flying bullets and perfectly staged explosions. It tries so hard to be satirical that it ends up resembling exactly what it’s supposed to satirise. Oh the irony.


On the plus side, when it’s funny, it’s hilarious. And the real comedy comes from the characters. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman may be just another Derek Zoolander, but dammit he’s so good at playing blissfully unaware idiots. Jack Black draws the short straw as drug addled Jeff Portnoy and, yes, he is overshadowed by better characters, but he hasn’t lost his comedy mojo just yet. Up-and-coming Danny McBride gets good mileage out of an underwritten role as unbalanced pyrotechnics maniac Cody.


To sum up, Tropic Thunder resembles Rachel’s botched trifle from a Thanksgiving episode of Friends. Or it certainly suffers from Joey’s ‘what’s not to like’ fallacy – an all star cast made up of the best screen comedians of our time? Good. A satire about the idiocy of Hollywood? Good. Tom Cruise with huge hairy prosthetic arms? Good. Despite all the ingredients, this doesn’t add up to a great comedy.


Rating: 3/5


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