'Tropic Thunder'

Stiller's multi-personality parody is at war with itself.

By Steve Burgess 13 Aug 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week for The Tyee.

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'Great, when it doesn't suck.'

Genre check for the new Ben Stiller movie, Tropic Thunder: a comedy/action/parody/war flick. File under, "Um, maybe."

Follow along here, this can get tricky. Tropic Thunder is a movie-within-a-movie, a cinematic apocalypse experienced by three big Hollywood stars -- Tugg Speedman (Stiller, who also directs), Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black). For Speedman, read Sylvester Stallone. Lazarus would seem to be Russell Crowe. And the fictional Portnoy, who has apparently made his name making movies about obese people with gas, could be based on a lot of actors.

As the movie (the one we are in the theatre watching) opens we see trailers for the actors' past work, the funniest of which is "Satan's Alley," co-starring Lazarus and Tobey Maguire as monks with a forbidden love. For the movie-within-a-movie "Tropic Thunder" though, the esteemed Lazarus has gone deep into character as a black person. That the cast also features an actual black person, rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon P. Jackson) causes some tension.

More tension comes from the disastrously over-budget production being helmed by rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). When a teleconferencing studio boss asks a key grip to walk over and punch Cockburn in the face, it's a sign that things may not be going well. Also glowering over the set is Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the tough-as-hand-hooks GI who wrote the book on which this true tale is based. Meanwhile back in La La Land, Speedman's agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is making sure that Speedman gets the on-set TiVo his status deserves.

Shows lots of premise

Plenty of stars and plenty of concept equals, the good folks at Dreamworks fondly hope, plenty of summer fun. Tropic Thunder certainly has premise to burn. Actual director Stiller may be contemplating the lesson learned onscreen by fictional director Cockburn: sometimes it all blows up on you. Tropic Thunder is indeed a bit of an explosion at the concept factory. In the lobby after the screening one gentleman summed it up rather well: "It was good," he said, "except when it really sucked."

Whether the suckage outweighs the laughs is a call each viewer must make. Personally, I was disappointed that a potentially devastating critique of Hollywood idiocy frequently degenerated into just one more piece of Hollywood idiocy.

When the focus is on skewering film industry types -- both human and cinematic -- there are laughs to be had. Naturally there are nods to Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan, but other genres are nailed as well. I would like to think that Tugg Speedman's attempt to gain Oscar credibility by playing the mentally-challenged hero of the moving drama "Simple Jack" was based on the 1988 dreck-fest Domenick and Eugene, co-starring Tom Hulce as the wide-eyed unfortunate. But the sad truth is they could be parodying a lot of films.

At any rate, Lazarus' explanation of why some actors -- like Tom Hanks -- win Oscars for playing the slow while others -- like Tugg Speedman -- do not is a high point of this film.

Tom cruises by

The problem with making a comedy/war/action parody is deciding when you want to parody the genres and when you want to play along with them. Tropic Thunder -- the Ben Stiller movie -- makes the too-common mistake of slipping from parody to tribute. Gradually, Tropic Thunder gets away from the Hollywood skewering and becomes a rather tedious, noisy, borderline offensive feel-good action flick. Those with a low tolerance for mugging will be forced to suffer the antics of Jack Black. And frankly, although you can argue that Downey Jr. is simply in character as he does his annoying actor shtick, after awhile annoying is just annoying, in character or not. In the end, Tropic Thunder looked less like an enlightening riff on bad moviemaking and more like part of the problem.

A final note -- Tom Cruise is in this movie. I knew that going in and yet, I am embarrassed to admit, I did not identify him until the final scene. Kudos to Mr. Cruise, of whom I am rarely fond -- he does a very fine job here. People will talk about it.

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