Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tropic Thunder / ***½ (R)

Tugg Speedman: Ben Stiller
Kirk Lazarus: Robert Downey, Jr.
Jeff Portnoy: Jack Black
Alpa Chino: Brandon T. Jackson
Kevin Sandusky: Jay Baruchel
Four Leaf Tayback: Nick Nolte
Cody: Danny McBride
Damien Cockburn: Steve Coogan
Rick Peck: Matthew McConaughey
Les Grossman: Tom Cruise

DreamWorks SKG presents a film directed by Ben Stiller. Written by Stiller & Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. Running time: 107 min. Rated R (for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, and drug material).

It’s hard to imagine a movie where Mathew McConaughey plays the sanest person of the bunch. In Ben Stiller’s new satire “Tropic Thunder”—about the making of big budget Hollywood blockbusters—not only is McConaughey the only one without his head totally in the clouds, but he is so while playing a Hollywood agent who goes by the nickname “Pecker” and will still sacrifice almost anything to make sure the Tivo clause in his client’s contract is honored.

Pecker’s client is Tugg Speedman, a one-time big box office draw with his action franchise “Scorcher”. Tugg’s career has been in a down swing after fans have begun to tire of his Scorcher shtick and a poor choice of playing a mentally challenged man in an attempt to lend legitimacy to his career in a movie entitled “Simple Jack”. While accepting Ben Stiller (“Zoolander”) as an action star might be a stretch of the imagination, seeing his career-killing performance as the pathetic Simple Jack is a stroke of satiric genius. People who have criticized Stiller for his portrayal of the mentally handicapped in “Tropic Thunder” are missing the joke, which is aimed squarely at Hollywood and its pompous attitude toward the “special” people they so graciously immortalize in sappy dramas.

Tugg is making one last grasp at acting greatness with his latest movie, a Vietnam War picture about a rescue mission to save the soldier Four Leaf Tayback—a vet who lost his hands in the war and found fame through the memoir he wrote about his war experience. Nick Nolte (“Hotel Rwanda”) plays the real Tayback as a gruff shadow figure who may just snap at any given minute.

Two other big name actors join Tugg in his Vietnam project. Jack Black (“King Kong”) plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian who has built his career on fart jokes in a franchise called “The Fatties”—modeled on Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor” movies. Robert Downey, Jr. (“Iron Man”) is the award-winner of the bunch, Kirk Lazarus, who undergoes a skin-altering surgery to portray the African-American platoon leader.

Like Stiller’s clueless star, Black and Downey have a great deal of fun with their characters. Black’s comedian is secretly struggling with a drug addiction, which can become a problem when shooting a picture on location in Vietnam. But it is Downey who steals the show with his obsessive acting. Lazarus is an Australian method actor—meaning that when he takes on a character, he literally becomes the person he is portraying. He stays in character at all times. This causes some tension between Lazarus and the production’s real African-American actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, “This Christmas”), a media mogul, ala P. Diddy, trying to push his new energy drink even within a Vietnam War movie.

The production is not going well. There are creative differences within the cast and after five days of shooting the production is already one month behind schedule. Desperate for a way to get control of his selfish cast, the director (Steve Coogan, “Around the World in 80 Days”) decides to take Tayback’s advice and shoot the movie “guerilla style” by placing hidden cameras throughout the jungle and dropping the cast in the middle of nowhere to fend for themselves. The film’s demolition specialist Cody (Danny McBride, “The Fist Foot Way”) sets up explosives in the jungle, but they become a moot point when real guerillas attack the actors—still unaware that this isn’t part of the production—and take Tugg hostage.

As for McConaughey (“Fool’s Gold”), when he goes to the production’s executive producer—the appropriately named Les Grossman—to complain about Tugg’s overlooked Tivo clause, I was prepared to witness a great sparring between two action hunk heavyweights as they let go their serious sides for some goofy diatribes of insults flung at each other in the interest of making the power players of their business look like fools. But McConaughey’s reaction as Pecker to Tom Cruise’s outrageous performance as Grossman mirrored my own. Cruise (“Lions for Lambs”) is so off the wall—and nearly unrecognizable in a bald cap and fat suit—as Grossman that he nearly steals the show that Downey has already stolen. McConaughey and the audience alike can only watch in awe at a character so bizarre and beyond the comedic limits we could have guessed from Cruise that we must accept this performer as a true master of his craft.

Master comedians are what every one of the actors in “Tropic Thunder” are. There is a point in the movie where the plot just drifts away and no longer matters. The plot is still there in its flimsy manner of insistence, but it holds no importance next to the characters. This movie is like a comedic equivalent to the dramatic character study. It is a study in comic characters where the actors give their best shots at creating the zaniest madmen they can ever hope to be. What starts out as a good satire on Hollywood movie making eventually turns into a laugh festival where you can’t wait to see what ridiculous thing each character is going to say and do next.


SD said...

Danny McBride was also in the equally hysterical Pineapple Express, and he was fantastic in both. It's strange, the only other thing I've seen him in was "All the Real Girls" (and what the hell is "The Fist Foot Way"?)and now he suddenly pops up twice in as may weeks.

Andrew D. Wells said...

"The Fist Foot Way" is a Tae Kwon Do spoof that McBride starred in as an inept instructor. Will Ferrell had a pretty big hand in making sure it got distribution for a limited release earlier this summer. It will be available on DVD Sept. 23. McBride has also been in "Hot Rod", "The Heartbreak Kid", and "Drillbit Taylor". But his star will really rise next summer when he co-stars with Ferrell in the TV remake "Land of the Lost".