Tropic Thunder

Warning # 1: This is not your grandpa’s war movie. It’s a coarse, bizarre, often nauseating spoof of Hollywood shallowness. It’s completely politically incorrect, offensive, crude, grisly, and nasty. It’s also intermittently hilarious, if not brilliant. At times you actually hold your sides laughing, at least when you’re not holding them to keep from retching

Warning # 2: Don’t have any fantasies that Thunder is a date movie–I’m glad I saw it, but it’s going to be a long time before I see it again.

Warning #3: Read the description of the movie’s rating. It’s accurate.

Warning # 4: Thunder is preceded by four movie “trailers” satirizing the movie’s characters. They are so offensive–and believable–that some horrified audience members didn’t realize they were part of the feature presentation. When you see what looks like a really over the top hip-hop soft drink commercial with some truly expressive close-ups of wiggling pink-satin bottoms–don’t walk out in protest–there’s a purpose to the pre-movie perversions.

Warning # 5: The evil, foul-mouthed, pudgy, hairy-palmed, bald-pated studio movie producer is indeed played by Tom Cruise. It’s an astonishing, scary performance.

Warning #6: Being a satire of war movies, Thunder has a goodly supply of blood and gore. The amputated limbs and escaping intestines are sickening but at least everyone knows they are products of the make-up department’s skills. Not so with what happens when the director of the movie accidentally steps on a landmine. What Ben Stiller does with the director’s head because he thinks it’s fake was really, really gross, so be prepared to close your eyes for a few minutes when he raises up what he thinks is the fake head.

Now that you’ve been sufficiently warned…

Tropic Thunder is a movie within a movie. Three actors and a singer, known for their talent and their excess of ego (which means excess of insecurity) and each hiding image-wrecking secrets, are on location in a stress-filled production reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s famous travails during the making of Apocalypse Now.

Ben Stiller (Zoolander), oiled, bulked up and bulging with ammunition is a fading Sylvester Stallone clone, named Tugg Speedman. His co-star and rival is Academy Award-winning Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man), who has endured a controversial surgical procedure to make himself black. Having no idea who he is as a person, the actor convinces himself that he actually is black, and a black Army sergeant to boot. Which is ridiculous of course because he’s only “the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude.”

Some are calling Downey’s performance a 21st century “black face” routine, with all the ugly racism that implies. I think such critics are missing the point. Thunder insults all men making this faux Hollywood movie–black, white, Asian, American, straight, gay. The only group to escape the barbs of satire is women, who are totally absent from the movie anyway–an insult by exclusion. Lazarus’ character is meant to satirize all actors who go to extremes to create a make-believe persona without having a smidgeon of self-awareness. Putting Kirk Lazarus in his color place is a real black man, the singer, Alpa Chino (say it slow), played with enviable newcomer energy by comic Brandon T. Jackson.

Giving color another riff is Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, Be Kind, Rewind). His claim to fame is playing all the parts in the faux The Fatties series–not unlike what black actors such as Eddie Murphy (Norbit and the Nutty Professor series) and Tyler Perry (Madea’s Family series) do quite often. Rounding out the main cast is young Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, Knocked Up), who is so new to Hollywood that he still knows who he is and he gamely tries to bring a note of reality to all the nuts around him.

The hapless director of the movie, played by Steve Coogan (Hamlet 2), is so bushwhacked by the puerile acting egos that he works up a nefarious plan with Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, Spiderwick Chronicles), the Vietnam double amputee who wrote the script. With the connivance of the movie’s demolitions expert (Danny McBride, Pineapple Express), the wimpy actors are sent off into the jungle by themselves and told that hidden cameras set up everywhere will capture their gritty, true-to-life Oscar-worthy performances. Uh oh–life imitating a B-movie script– the jungle is inhabited by real guerilla soldiers with real bullets and they aren’t happy about movie stars invading their heroin processing compound. The drug operation is run by a dysfunctional 12-year old dictator (Brandon Soo Hoo, in a terrific performance) who seems to take his inspiration from Pol Pot.

It turns out that the only movie the guerillas have ever seen is a bootlegged copy of Speedman’s sappy film, Simple Jack. When the guerillas capture Speedman, they go ga-ga over him and force him to perform Simple Jack, the gentle mentally challenged farmer, every night on a make-shift stage. In one of the funniest send-ups of Hollywood ever written, Kirk Lazarus tries to explain to Speedman that actors have to be aware of the “degrees of retardation”–think Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal in Rain Man, compared to Sean Penn’s in I Am Sam. No actor should go “full retard,” Lazarus chides Speedman–it’s career suicide. Advocates of the mentally challenged have taken umbrage at this scene. Again, I fear the criticism is misplaced. In this type of take-no-prisoners comedy, the purpose of the scene was not to insult mentally challenged people with the word “retard,” but to satirize filmmakers who misuse any and all disabilities to pander for movie awards.

At last feeling appreciated for his acting talent, Speedman wants to stay in the jungle as Simple Jack and adopt an orphan boy. Meanwhile the other actors try to rescue him–dueling egos and lots of explosions rein. When it’s all over, you realize that you’ve just seen a damn good movie, well worth its $100M budget–and one that will probably set the bar for over-the-top humor for years to come. Director/co-writer/actor Ben Stiller can rightfully scoop up the kudos as well as the complaints.

When the end credits roll, you’re left with one question–was the humor worth the gross-out? For some people it is. Having lived in Hollywood for 20 years, I thought the movie was hilarious. But for others without such a background–caution is the better part of valor.

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