Packed with empty-calorie laughs.
After playing at least 100 variations of what is essentially the same character over the past decade, Ben Stiller steps behind the lens again for his first directorial feature since 2001's Zoolander. As with his portrayal of the fashionable but brainless Derek Zoolander, Stiller plays a similarly self-obsessed, low I.Q. movie star in Tropic Thunder named Tugg Speedman. After a successful career as an action star, Speedman has had a few career missteps, most notably as "Simple Jack," a sort of more mentally disabled version of Forrest Gump or Lenny who looks like Howdy Doody. Now Speedman is attempting a comeback in the hard core realistic war tale Tropic Thunder, based on the memoirs of a grizzled Vietnam war vet played by Nick Nolte. Joining Speedman is Australian thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), who has undergone a very controversial pigmentation surgery in order to portray an African American; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedian famous for playing multiple roles a la Eddie Murphy; Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a rookie actor and the smartest of the bunch; Cody (Danny McBride), a movie demolitions expert and finally, the director Damien (Steve Coogan), an artsy music video director determined to make a gritty masterpiece akin to Apocalypse Now.
When Damien gets the idea to shoot the movie guerilla-style in the jungle, the crew unwittingly winds up in a real battle, although it takes the dimwitted bunch a while to realize the grizzly battles aren't just special effects scenes for the movie. And hijinks ensue.
Tropic Thunder is very funny and, for the most part, the laughs come consistently from start to finish. The problem is that it also knows it's funny and in some cases thinks it's funnier than it is, which results in a bit of self-aggrandizing humor that becomes tiresome midway through the second act of the movie. Thankfully, the movie rebounds with an ending that is beyond over-the-top. I'm not sure if studio exec humor and movie production gags resonate as much with non-industry towns, but with DVD special features these days most audiences are probably just as versed in production terminology as the average grip or best boy.
Fans of the short-lived, critically-lauded Ben Stiller Show should find a lot to like here. Tugg Speedman is essentially one of Stiller's send-up characters from the show. In fact, Tom Cruise himself, who Stiller famously spoofed on that very show, portrays one of the movie's funniest characters, a caffeine-riddled, cold-hearted screaming studio exec. One has to wonder who Cruise was using as the basis for the character. Also, Matthew McConaughey is very funny as Speedman's agent, whose primary obsession is whether the studio met the contracted terms of Tugg's Tropic Thunder agreement which clearly stated he was to have a working Tivo unit.
Robert Downey Jr. is pretty much brilliant at everything he does and this is no exception. And did anyone think a movie would ever find a way to do blackface again and actually get away with it? Downey Jr. sells the part 100 percent. After the grueling Iron Man, this is clearly a breezy, fun part for the talented actor to step into.
Jack Black is understated for once and, consequently, funnier and less annoying than he has been in years. Jay Baruchel is always funny and I'd love to see him get some more expanded roles in the future. Likewise for Steve Coogan.
Tropic Thunder is a lot of fun. I don't see it holding up to multiple viewings or having the depth of the Judd Apatow comedies, but it's certainly a good time. Some of the jokes may lean a bit towards the insider realm and I did find my mind drifting midway through, but the ending is spectacular and relentless, essentially forcing your funny bone to move at least a little. It would be hard for even the most cynical to avoid a hefty chuckle or two by the time the credits roll.