Written & directed by Ben Stiller
Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel
Release date: August 13, 2008
This country loves its parody, doesn’t it? The National Lampoon brand made a career out of it, Saturday Night Live is in its 34th season, and late night talk shows — a staple of which is poking fun at current events — have been around for over half a century. As much as people would sometimes like to turn their nose up and scoff at the audacity of the envelope being pushed, the market has been thriving almost as long as the medium has existed. So it always baffles me when these rights activists get their draws in a bunch over something that, even in the wildest stretches of imagination, was never meant to be taken seriously.
Tropic Thunder is a Hollywood movie making fun of Hollywood making movies. On the set of “the most expensive war movie ever made,” first-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t pull his lead actors from their pools of self-absorption, costs are spiraling out of control, and the studio threatens to shut down production for good. He decides that he will set the actors loose in the jungles of Southeast Asia (and into the path of some real local mercenaries) to find their way back, all while the actors think they are still filming their Vietnam movie. The story itself isn’t terribly original or complicated — it tastes almost exactly like a dish I had years ago called The Three Amigos — but the point of the movie isn’t in the premise, which only exists to drive the story, it is in the parody.
Tropic Thunder is full of characters riddled with cliché and satire, but that is exactly the point. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the highest paid action star in the world until his attempt to turn in a serious performance is met with collective disdain and his career plummets. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is a leading comedic actor known for his one-note, multi-wardrobed performances, who has fallen into the well of drug addiction. Kirk Lazurus (Robert Downey Jr.) plays — stay with me — an Australian method actor with multiple Academy Awards to his credit who, in the interest of his craft, undergoes a skin pigmentation procedure to make him appear African American so he can play the black lead in the movie. There are a big handful of cameo appearances that are mostly perfect — especially one in particular that you will know as soon as you see it — but the movie will probably be remembered for Robert Downey Jr.’s near blackface performance. Watching a real black man (Brandon T. Jackson as rapper turned actor Apha Chino) try to argue with a fake black man about his fake blackness is funny by itself, but realizing that neither of them gets the joke not only doesn’t get old, it’s priceless.
Hollywood has been making fun of itself for years; it just hasn’t been done this well, or this funny, in awhile. It is not difficult to connect the dots between the characters and the subjects of their prodding. And that is exactly what makes it funny. Most of these jokes are ones we make to our movie-watching friends like we are some kind of experts on the subject. Like that guy at the office that everyone secretly makes fun of behind his back for having a mullet and a jean jacket until that one day when he says, “No shit, I have a mullet. Wanna go for a ride in my Camero and listen to Billy Squire?” Knowing that Hollywood gets the joke too makes it that much more hilarious. If this movie had been made even ten years ago it probably wouldn’t strike the same tone it does today. We’d all still get the satire in theory but our exposure to the process of filmmaking, thanks to the internet and celebrity gossip sites and TV shows, makes us as an audience more tuned in to the behind the scenes shenanigans and the jokes cut deeper and are funnier because of it.
What makes Tropic Thunder the funniest movie of the summer is that everything they are making fun of is so over the top and done with just the right amount of self-awareness to realize, and further satirize how ridiculous it is.
To anyone who still doesn’t get the joke, lighten up, it’s only a movie.
And there’s the rub.
*** ½ out of ****