Thursday, June 17, 2010

“I'm the dude playin' the dude, disguised as another dude!”

So The Silence of the Lambs was some heavy, well made and deeply disturbing cinema. Let’s wash that out with some comedic brain bleach. To that end, here’s 2008’s Tropic Thunder, written by Ben Stiller, directed by Ben Stiller & starring Ben Stiller.

So we start with a few fake ads and commercials featuring the characters of the film before getting into the plot. This is a movie about making movies, and the movie in question is an astronomically big budgeted Vietnam War movie “based on a true story” and starring three of the most egotistical and temperamental figures in Hollywood. The movie is over-budget and woefully behind schedule, and the producer gives the greenhorn director an ultimatum; get the movie back on track or he’s fired. The writer of the novel that the movie-within-the-actual-movie is based on (man, this is getting meta) suggests taking the actors off the grid into the jungle for some guerrilla-style filmmaking, at which point everything goes to hell when they enter the territory of a drug cartel called the Flaming Dragon and hilarity ensues.

Damien Cockburn: Steve Coogan is the hapless director who is in way over his head and unable to get his actors under control. He does a good job of the role, though there’s not much to it.

Kirk Lazarus: Robert Downey Jr. blows the movie away with his portrayal of a belligerent Australian method actor who undergoes a skin darkening procedure in order to play the movie squad’s black sergeant, “Lincoln Osiris” and refuses to break character. Far and away the movie’s badass.

Jeff Portnoy: Jack Black plays a boisterous comedian famous for lowbrow comedies that are pretty clearly based on Eddie Murphy’s Nutty Professor films. He’s got a serious drug problem too.

Tugg Speedman: Ben Stiller plays a largely washed up action star who’s Scorcher films aren’t making the money they used to. He took the lead role in the shameless Oscar-fodder film Simple Jack which bombed because he went “full retard” for the part and this role is acknowledged as pretty much a last gasp attempt at saving his career.

Alpa Chino: Brandon T. Jackson plays a popular and highly commercial rapper famous for shilling products like “Booty Sweat” energy drink who is trying to branch out dramatically to prove he has range. Naturally, he’s not particularly fond of Lazarus playing a very over-the-top black man, but he’s also got some surprises.

Kevin Sandusky: Jay Baruchel plays a really young character actor who’s trying to get a big break in the business. As such, he’s more or less ignored by the rest of the cast, but also happens to have been the only one to attend the cast boot camp and has some idea of what he’s doing. Easily the most level-headed character in the film.

John “Four-Leaf” Tayback: Nick Nolte plays a full-blown crazy man and the author of the book that the film is based on. His hands were blown off during the war, so he has to use hooks, but there’s a lot more going on with him than he lets on.

Cody: Danny McBride plays the pyrotechnics chief for the movie, a boorish, crass pyromaniac who loves making stuff go boom. And boom stuff goes in this movie.

Rick Peck: Matthew McConaughey plays Tugg’s agent who’s been with him for years. Mostly, he’s concerned with getting Tugg a TiVo that was promised in the contract.

Les Grossman: Tom Cruise in a surprisingly entertaining glorified cameo as the executive producer of the film. Grossman is a foul-mouthed, amoral crazy pants who is funding the movie and steals the show when he’s on screen. If he & Downey Jr. were on the screen at the same time, I fear the television would magically transform into a ham and cheese sandwich fit for the gods.

Ben Stiller directed with John Toll as director of photography. The film looks very, very good and when it goes into action-movie mode, stuff blows up real good while still remaining wickedly funny. The pacing of the film is also incredibly well done, with even the director’s cut moving along at a nice breezy pace.

Screenwriters Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux & Etan Cohen have a lot of characters to juggle, and the manage to do so well. Everybody important goes through some kind of arc and the dialogue is both incredibly well written and incredibly profane, so there’s not much I can quote here. Suffice it to say, the movie throws a lot at you, and it is very, very funny. Even the film’s point of controversy, the abundant usage of the word “retard” in discussion of the mentally handicapped is actually rather well handled, with the point within the movie being about Hollywood’s exploitation of such disabilities in order to create maudlin Oscar Bait tearjerkers.

Original Music by Theodore Shapiro, but that gets overshadowed by the excellent and appropriately placed licensed music, like Quiet Riot, M.C. Hammer, The Temptations, The Mooney Suzuki, The Crystal Method, Steppenwolf and others.

Not a whole lot to say other than I love the hell out of Tropic Thunder. It’s a smart, genre savvy skewering/tribute to big budget action movies that is one really successful action comedy. Totally recommended.

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