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Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.21.08





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Get Your War On

Actors provide the hell in this jungle

by Molly Templeton

TROPIC THUNDER: Directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller and Etan Cohen. Cinematography, John Toll. Music, Theodore Shapiro. Editor, Greg Hayden. Starring Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Danny McBride and Nick Nolte. DreamWorks, 2008. 107. R.

In the running time of Tropic Thunder, it’s extraordinarily rare that you’ll hear a woman speak. There are no real parts for women in this Hollywood satire, and that, like the film’s every offense, is the point: There are few real parts for women in general, let alone in sort of testosterone-dipped war movie that’s — in theory — being made in the movie-within-the-movie here (I think I’ve left out another “within a movie”; Tropic Thunder has as many layers as Tristram Shandy).

Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black in Tropic Thunder

But the omission of women is one of this film’s more subtle jabs. More obvious satire comes from the actor-types starring in Tropic Thunder (the movie within the movie): Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a waning action star trying to reboot his career with a serious war movie; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedian trying to prove there’s more to him than fart jokes and fat suits; and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Australian Method actor so determined to play the part of Lincoln Osiris, one of the group’s two black members, that he undergoes “repigmentation.” As Osiris, Lazarus speaks in a deepened, gravelly voice, but his idea of an authentic black character seems based not on actual men, but on other film and TV characters played by black men. (It’s a careful line Downey Jr. walks, but his nuanced, funny performance makes the role a brief history of Hollywood and race, from the blackface his character suggests to today’s less overt failures of casting.)

Tropic Thunder is behind schedule. Its director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), can’t control his actors. At the suggestion of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), on whose memoir the film is based, Cockburn takes his actors deep into the (camera-rigged) jungle in an attempt to get better work out of them. Everything goes to hell, the actors can’t understand when they’re not required to be in character, and an Asian (no one’s quite sure which country they’re in) drug factory is between them and home.

Tropic Thunder is both a ridiculously budgeted war movie and a mockery of such, but most of the mockery in Stiller’s film (written with fellow actor Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) is directed straight at the egos and vanity of actors, producers, agents and other moviemaking folk. These stars are self-centered wrecks; they do things for the accolades and cannot comprehend why their decisions are offensive. (Speedman’s attempt at Serious Acting crashed and burned; Lazarus’ explanation for this —  “You never go full retard” — is, like much in the film, both terribly uncomfortable and viciously funny; its true targets are Oscar-baiting actors like Lazarus himself). Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a hip hop mogul branching out with his role in the film, takes Lazarus to brilliant, brutal task for his offensive role (he’s the only one who appears to notice that it should have gone to an actual black actor), but he’s got his own schtick going on. The only grounded person in the bunch is Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a newbie actor who may just not have been in the biz long enough to get corrupted. Yet. 

Tropic Thunder meanders a bit as it treks through the jungle (Hawaii standing in for Southeast Asia). The film is preceded by fake previews that are scathing commentaries on the sort of movies they advertise, but they also serve to illustrate Stiller’s strength: short, pointed, compact send-ups. Not every notion in Tropic can take being drawn out, and at times the plot is nothing more than a way to get from one farcical scenario to another. But more often than not, the destination is worth it, the laughter well-earned. Sure, there’s a bit of skepticism required when a major studio releases a film that oh-so-cleverly sends up the exact things that let it rake in the dough. But Tropic Thunder is almost brazen enough — almost discomfiting enough, at times — to convince you it isn’t just patting itself on the back for recognizing what’s wrong with the world from whence it comes. Almost.