Smile Politely

Tropic Thunder Unexpectedly Good

Seatbelts securely fastened. Tray tables in their upright positions. Yet the turbulence of Tropic Thunder doesn’t phase.

Thunder is the most refreshing, brave and entertaining comedy of the year, and it didn’t come from an independent studio or an up-and-coming filmmaker.

Ben Stiller perfectly assembles pieces of pop culture, satire and humanity to present a much-needed comedy that really was either going to be a hit or a miserable miss.

Clear skies ahead for Thunder. You are now free to roam about this review.

Thunder isn’t about classifying itself into a specific genre of movie. It doesn’t try to hard to be a war movie, or an action movie, or a comedy. It lets its content and characters perform limitlessly, and the unrestrained flow of it all makes us, in turn, not care to control our laughter. The potentials of stars like Jack Black, Ben Stiller and even Robert Downey Jr. have been masked by some of their former film roles in which they were typecast (Black a clumsy loser, Stiller a vulnerable idiot, and Downey Jr. an arrogant aristocrat). But Thunder allows them to reintroduce themselves as comedic threats, and they consequently deliver some of the top-ranking performances of the year, and their careers.

The way Thunder does this, ironically, is by typecasting. Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) is a tabloid screw-up who completely submerges himself in his roles. (As he says in the movie, he’ll only stop once he’s done the DVD commentary). Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an insecure action star who’s haunted by his former failed role as a mentally challenged hillbilly. And Jeff Portnoy (Black) is a comedian who hides the fact that his comedy is based solely on fart jokes by dousing himself in drugs. But we witness how the characters evolve. They are powerless in the fake, yet real, yet fake jungles of Vietnam. Complications in the guerrilla-style filming of the “Tropic Thunder” movie leave the actors without their make-up artists, five-star services, and TiVos. Portnoy has run out of drugs, Speedman mistakes jungle locals as actors, and Lazarus is feuding with his African-American co-star. They don’t know how to cope with a life outside of their self-centered filmmaking universe, which is one of the many stereotypes that the film successfully attempts to break.

But the movie doesn’t become too preachy or overdone. It limits its messages about mainstream pop culture by subduing it with mainstream pop culture. Yup, you read that right. The Tropic Thunder billboards and advertisements don’t tell us that both Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey are in the film — in fairly big roles, might I add. Their appearances act as a leash to drag us from being blinded by stardom to viewing celebrities as human. Like us, celebrities have addictions, or hold past embarrassments, or (in the twisted case of Downey Jr.’s character) just try to fit in with culture. The brilliance of it all is that it didn’t take a groundbreaking documentary or an Academy Award-winning movie (like the ones Kirk Lazarus stars in) to effectively deliver this message. We got it from a big-budget August comedy written and directed by Ben Stiller.

We feel superior to Thunder’s actors because we’re in tune with the life they’re trying to live. We feel, as a result, comfortable laughing at them. Furthermore, we’re drawn to the film because despite the actors’ insecurities, we want to switch roles with them. We’ll try being the movie stars, and they can deal with trying to find a bill-paying job in our struggling economy. But this is also why the movie slightly stumbles…

(*Warning: Possible spoiler!)

We’re never shown the finished “Tropic Thunder” movie. We don’t get to laugh at how its scenes could get misconstrued in the editing room. We don’t get to reflect on the shot footage from a different point of view. But, most importantly, there are no feelings of resolution. Because we’re so drawn in with its characters, we count on ourselves to direct them to complete the film. The whole reason the actors were even dropped in the middle of the jungle is because the director couldn’t get them to act intense enough. And when we finally get our characters to the states we want them, we have no movie to reward ourselves with. Instead, we’re left with images of Tom Cruise dancing. Funny, yes, but also a cop-out.

Despite such flaws, however, Tropic Thunder capitalizes on humor from plot and character development. And, overall, the laughs of Tropic Thunder are anything but empty.

Cut! Print it!

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