Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Tropic Thunder is essentially a collection of funny lines said at breakneck speed amidst gunfire, explosions, and beautiful scenery. And half the gunfire is fake.

The movie follows the misadventures of a group of actors who travel through the jungle thinking that they're shooting a great war movie. One problem: Their director (Steve Coogan) stepped on a land mine and got blowed up real good. This leaves veteran star of special effects event films Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) in charge. One problem: He can't read a map. Eventually he is separated from the group through their disagreements, and is captured by a group of druglords known as Flaming Dragon.

But the movie isn't about plot. The jokes. There's Tugg Speedman's turn in Simple Jack, an Oscar baiting movie that forgot to be any good. Simple Jack is, as far as we're shown, about the misadventures of a severely retarded man who thinks he can talk to animals. It isn't the thought of the movie that is funny, but how it keeps manifesting itself. The conversation between Speedman and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) about the perils of going "full retard." One drug runner's insistence that he "should have won Ossssscer." Is that an elaborate, automated Simple Jack poster in the background?

Speaking of Lazarus, Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic. Considering that he is a white man playing an Australian man playing an African American, anything less than a great performance would have been disastrous. Lazarus is a character actor who doesn't get out of character until the DVD commentary. Tropic Thunder (the movie they're shooting) is FUBAR, but he continues to play a stick in the Georgia mud. If you're lucky, he'll collar up some of them greens, maybe make them crawfish.

Naturally this draws the ire of the only African American on the project, rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who nearly steals the show with his constant plugging of Booty Sweat (his energy drink) and Bust A Nut (his energy bar). Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) plays the drug addicted slapstick guy (Black's faces make up for his not really being a main player), and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) plays the straight man who can read a map. Oh, and he's read the script. And the book.

By now I've gone on far too long, and I have not mentioned the author of the book (Nick Nolte), the special effects man (Danny McBride), and, in Los Angeles, Speedman's agent and the studio head financing the movie. I won't spoil who they are. Studio head Les Grossman's interaction with Flaming Dragon is probably the funniest part of the movie ("We don't negotiate with terrorists," he intones), followed closely by his bribing of Speedman's agent to leave the poor, clueless guy to die in the jungle.

The movie is all jokes, and it's probably funnier if you're in on them. If you're aware of how Apocalypse Now was made, as documented in Hearts of Darkness, Tropic Thunder plays like a gross exaggeration of that legend. Downey Jr. carries the movie, but if you've seen the trailers (or the movie, at this point), that is no surprise. After Iron Man and this, Downey Jr. is not only back, but is finally the star that most predicted he would become. What a tragedy it would have been had he rejected the role, as he was close to doing.

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