Directed by Ben Stiller
Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release date: November 18, 2008
Have you ever watched a movie that your conscious mind continually told you that you shouldn’t be enjoying? That the premise was thin, the majority of the acting was way overblown, and that teetered it on the edge of “Scary Movie 15” lameness, yet somehow you found yourself laughing and having a good time? That is exactly the movie that Tropic Thunder is to me.
In order to discuss my thoughts on this film, I’m going to have to delve into some character details that may be considered spoiler territory, so be warned.
Still with me? Cool. Here we go.
Tropic Thunder is one of those “high concept” films that tells the story of the making of a film within the film itself. The idea is nothing new, and neither is Ben Stiller’s desire to skewer the profession he loves. It’s well worn territory. And while I’d love to say that Stiller, who wrote, directed, and stars in this film, walked this well worn territory in a fresh and interesting way — I can’t. The truth is, this film offers us very little that we haven’t seen before.
The majority of the performances are exactly what you would expect, too. Stiller’s delivery is as ham-fisted as it gets. Even when playing a character this is supposed to be an over-the-top stereotype, Stiller is somehow able to bring the extra cheese. Jack Black is manic and goofy, relying on his physicality to carry his performance even though I’ve seen him at his best when reined in to a subtler performance. He needs a director who is willing to tell him that he doesn’t always have to be the Jack Black from the Kid’s Choice Awards in each and every performance. His drugged-out character spends more than half of the film in heroin withdrawal, writhing around and acting… well… like Jack Black. Nick Nolte continues to be nothing more than a parody of his unkempt mug-shot from years back. This once intense actor seems destined to take on roles that allow him to keep his stringy, filthy hair and talk in nothing but simple gravelly grunts.
I know, I know… It definitely seems like I’m trashing the film. But I honestly enjoyed it. Really I did. And I’ll tell you why: Robert Downey Jr. His character is an Australian actor who has won multiple Oscars and is considered the greatest actor of his generation. His dedication to a role is so complete that he takes method acting to a whole new level. In this case, he goes so far as to go through a medical procedure to have his skin dyed in order to play a black character. Downey’s performance is so fearless and complete that it is genius. That’s right — genius. Without 110% commitment to this role, it would simply have come off as offensive. But because of the sincerity with which Downey plays it, it works. He carries the film, proving that he isn’t just portraying one of the greatest actors of his generation, but that he is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Without him, the film would fall apart. It’s as simple as that.
Jay Baruchel (Undeclared, Knocked Up) is pitch perfect as the young actor getting his big break who actually read the script and gives a shit about the movie. Baruchel is one of those up-and-coming actors who is going to be around for a long, long time. He has a natural timing on screen that makes him believable no matter what he’s doing. And new face Brandon T. Jackson is fantastic as Alpa Chino, a rapper turned actor who’s more concerned with pushing all of his other revenue streams (Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust-a-Nut candy bars) than he is with anything else. His character could have been just another send-up of rappers turned actors, but Jackson brings a sincerity to the character that oversteps the stereotypes and really plays off of Downey Jr.’s performance perfectly. And as much as it pains me, I have to mention Tom Cruise’s performance as Les Grossman, the cut-throat financier of the film. Cruise is completely unleashed, reveling in his screen chewing insane glory. It feels as if he’s channeling all of the bad press for crazy antics he’s gotten and just spewed it for from the moments the cameras started rolling. I wanted to be annoyed with him. I wanted to roll my eyes and say, “Nice try, Tom.” But dammit, the man is funny. Really, really funny.
And I do have to give Stiller some credit. He takes certain chances in the film the made me fall in love with it. The Downey’s character is one of them. The Simple Jack back-story is another. Much criticism was fired at the film because of the use of the word “retard.” But in the context of these characters, it’s not mean spirited. It’s just plain funny. One of the true highlights of the film is the conversation between Stiller and Downey about going “full retard” in a film role. I won’t do it justice if I tried to explain it here. Just know that when you get to that scene, you’re going to be laughing so hard you’re crying. One thing Stiller understands is the ridiculousness of the filmmaking industry, and he presents that absurdity to us with broad strokes.
The special features on this disc are nothing to write home about — but I didn’t really expect them to be. We get several behind-the-scenes mini documentaries that all play like those 15 minute commercials on HBO. They’re not designed to give us any real insight into the film, but they give those involved ample time to tell us why we should own the movie we’ve obviously just watched.
“The Hot LZ” tells the story of the 3 weeks of filming it took to being about the movie’s opening sequence. The sequence plays like the most clichéd moments from Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket. And I have much respect for the time and effort that went into the pyrotechnics and helicopter sequences. But really, if I want to see how to bring about insane special effects, I’ll watch the features on a Michael Bay film. With a film like this, I could care less.
Another feature called “Blowing Shit Up” is just more of the same from “The Hot LZ”, only it focuses more on the construction and destruction of a wooden bridge in the film. Again, solid effects, but nothing that knocks your socks off to the point where you’re going to think “I need to know how they did that!”
Probably the biggest disappointment of the special features is “The Cast of Tropic Thunder” in which Stiller talks about each of the main cast members and why they were chosen for their roles. Let me save you the time – they were chosen because they’re funny. And Downey was chosen because he’s a great actor AND funny. Wow… such insight into the casting process!
There are other features on the disc as well, including the requisite deleted/extended scenes and alternate ending. Yawn…
As usual with a Blu-ray review from me, you’re not going to get much in terms of the look and sound of the thing. It’s fantastic. The HD transfer brings out the absolute best of the multitude of colors in the jungle. The greens are all lush and really pop off the screen. And the sound design is great as well. In typical fashion, the Blu-ray experience immerses you in a film like nothing else can.
As I write this review, I keep questioning why I said I enjoyed this movie. As I go back through this and read it, it sounds like I’m doing nothing but trash it. Trust me, I felt the same way as I watched it. I kept waiting for the moment when I would completely disengage and put my mind on autopilot, just waiting for the credits to roll. But that never happened. I like this film in spite of itself. I like what Stiller did in all aspects of it — his writing, directing, and acting. Even when trashing aspects of what Stiller does, the damn guy does it with so much joy that it’s hard not to dig it. And I think that’s what it is… even if it has flaws, the love that Stiller has for this business (and his place in it) just comes through on the screen. And for that, I applaud him. Well done, sir. Just make sure, you know, that you never go “full retard” again.