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Film Review: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder (2008; Directed by Ben Stiller)

I don't care what they say, dude. Zoolander made ME laugh.

Ben Stiller’s sharp and wicked satirical comedy got a lot of press for its glib portrayal of Hollywood’s own glib treatment of minorities and the disabled and for its vicious takedowns of the arrogant excess of mainstream film “artists”. But its satire is hardly limited to the yearly circle-jerk of Oscar-baiting prestige pictures; it rips on the highbrow, the lowbrow, and the middlebrow products of Hollywood, on the crude power-hunger of execs, the pampered absorption of actors, the client-fellating smarm of agents, the corporate cross-promotion of hip-hop artists, and the willful, greed-driven doublethink that allows all of these loopy, contradictory factors to exist on the same plane without any issue being taken.

Tropic Thunder is, of course, also a pretty witty parody of Vietnam war films, with specific references to Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now sprinkled throughout. And, yes, there is “Never go full retard.” But much of the film’s potent amusement stems from the density of its comedy, at once visual, verbal, and metaphorical.

A major factor in the way that the teetering-on-the-edge satire works so well is the commitment of the comic performances. Stiller mugs a bit much, but he’s at his best when playing willful dimbulbs with great inner reserves of what Will Ferrell calls “unearned confidence”, which he does here. Jack Black tries pretty hard, as always, and Jay Baruchel, Nick Nolte, and Steve Coogan all do solid enough work in essentially straight roles. But, of course, the film belongs to Robert Downey, Jr. and his mind-reeling meta-performance as an Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (equal parts Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis) playing a jive-slinging African-American (who, in one amazing scene, pretends to be Chinese; the subtitles are a riot). He’s got the best lines, of course, but the entire performance is a backwards comment on itself and is thus hilarious throughout.

Great credit must be given, however, to Brandon T. Jackson as product-minded rapper-cum-actor Alpa Chino (har har), whose understandable outrage at the near-racist hubris of Kirk Lazarus’ method appropriation of blackness allows Downey to cleanly get away with some of his more outrageous choices. This is to say nothing of the damned funny scene in which Alpa confronts Lazarus with baiting Aussie jokes, sparking Downey’s mock-serious defenses of Crocodile Dundee as “a national treasure” and contrite sympathy with the lady who lost her baby to a dingo.

I can't even begin to sum up the many ways that this is disturbing...

Maybe the craziest performance in a movie full of them, however, belongs to a surprising Tom Cruise, who, as in Magnolia, is only ever especially good onscreen when he’s sending himself up, which he manages to do here. In spades. He’s a cursing, threatening lump of hirsute studio-exec machismo who dances to hip-hop with eerie precision and rules his corporate bubble like a bald Jewish Stalin. It’s an insane turn, and a clear attempt by Cruise to escape the persona that is becoming a burden to his career, if only for a scant few moments. As a result, it’s oddly not all that funny, more impressive as train-wreck performance art than as an actual comic character. Still, Cruise’s Les Grossman is very much the conduit for the soul of Tropic Thunder‘s caustic satire of Hollywood, the personification of its humourous angle: an outsized capitalist send-up of a world blissfully and gloriously out of touch with itself in every conceivable way. Fine grist for the comic mill, if you ask me.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. August 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

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