Directed by: Ben Stiller
Premise: A group of actors filming a war movie in the jungles of Southeast Asia find themselves in real combat when a local drug cartel mistakes them for soldiers.
What Works: Tropic Thunder is a terrific comedy and a great satire of Hollywood movie making, ranking right next to Sullivan’s Travels and Bowfinger. Like Grindhouse, the picture begins with fake trailers that set the tone for the film but the trailers also introduce the characters so that the audience immediately has a sense for the kinds of actor stereotypes the film intends to ridicule; Stiller is a self-absorbed box office success gunning for Academy Award respectability, Jack Black plays a comedic actor with a heroin addiction, Brandon T. Jackson is a rapper crossing over into film, Jay Baruchel is a minor player vying for major league success, and Robert Downey Jr. stars as a method actor wearing blackface to play an African American. All the leads do a great job, although Downey’s performance really stands out for its audacity. The part requires him to walk a very fine line, making the comedy not about the blackface but about how pathetic the man wearing it is, and Downey nails it. The other great performance of Tropic Thunder is Tom Cruise in a supporting role as a hotheaded studio executive; Cruise appears bald, overweight, and extra hairy, cursing and threatening with the psychotic energy of Jack Nicholson, and he delivers some of the biggest laughs of the film. As a war picture, Tropic Thunder satirizes the clichés of war films, referencing pictures like Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Unlike the recent Pineapple Express, this film is able to merge the violence and the comedy by finding the right mix and bridging the genres that it satirizes, using familiar dialogue, images, and plot turns of the war film while ridiculing Hollywood’s tendency to exploit and sentimentalize warfare.
What Doesn’t: Some of Tropic Thunder’s finale leaves a little to be desired as it violates some of the satire and realism that the rest of the film had embraced. It does not destroy the movie, but it does snap the viewer out of the film for a moment.
Bottom Line: Tropic Thunder is one of the best comedies of the year. It is certainly one of the most outrageous films of this year but it also manages to say some critical things about Hollywood and its product while delivering an entertaining action comedy.
Episode: #201 (August 24, 2008)