Film: Tropic Thunder

Ah yes, this is the kind of movie that Netflix was made for. We put this on in the background last weekend, and while it’s definitely something to see, I can’t say I wholly enjoyed it. Tropic Thunder (2008) is a loud, ballsy, messy, transgressive comedy, a movie by (and, kind of, for) Hollywood insiders, taking the piss out of Hollywood. It’s got a good high-concept premise: a big budget, dramatic Viet Nam flick, shooting on location, is suffering insane production difficulties and is shaping up to be a disaster. To turn things around, the grizzly war veteran who inspired the film (Nick Nolte) convinces its director (Steve Coogan) to put his cast out in the shit for real and film the results for better verisimilitude. Unfortunately for the actors — including serial action-franchise star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), lowbrow comedy crossover Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and critically acclaimed thespian Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — this runs them afoul of real-world drug runners, not to mention live ammunition. Will they get out of the jungle alive?

The comedy is scattershot: sometimes inspired and clever, others in-your-face and obvious, with everything from sight gags to wordplay to gross-out humor. Stiller is fine as the clueless action hero, Black a bit wasted as a one-note celebrity junkie going into withdrawal. But the movie basically belongs to Robert Downey, Jr., whose performance — as an Australian critical darling who has immersed himself into the role of a hard-nosed black sergeant, presumably in a calculated attempt to score award recognition — is, to say the least, stunning. This is a one-note joke run spectacularly amok, clearly concocted to raise a point about Academy voting and the arbitrary quirks of film-world acclaim, but even so I wasn’t sure whether to be amazed or appalled by this role, which couldn’t be more politically incorrect. Full marks for sheer chutzpah, though — from the film and from Downey, who not-so-ironically received all sorts of plaudits for his film-stealing performance. I can’t say it isn’t well deserved, as Downey is truly something to watch; he’s mind-blowingly good. And if nothing else, it raises questions, which may be the film’s one major accomplishment.

As for the rest of the Hollywood-bashing humor, well, it isn’t quite as interesting. The excesses and foibles of Tinseltown, as depicted here, are largely easy and much-reconnoitered targets. And while on one level it’s fun to see such audacious rebellion from within the system, most of me comes away thinking, “Hey, wait a minute — these guys are the system! What the hell are they complaining about?” I mean, we’re talking Jack Black, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, and Ben Stiller, here. Not exactly fringe guys working the edges of the evil film world. Then again, I guess they would know of what they speak. Anyway, it’s an uneven film, to say the least, but definitely interesting.

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