Saturday 1 August 2015


(Ben Stiller, 2008)

This uber-comedy tries to all things as once, and just about succeeds. It is a Hollywood satire, mocking actorly pretension (brilliantly through Downey Jr's Russell Crowe skit, Kirk Lazarus, so deep in character he doesn't know who he is anymore), Executive arrogance (Tom Cruise having a great time riffing on Harvey Weinstein), agent desperation and obliviousness (Matthew McConaughey just on the verge of the McConnanaisance), and various stripes of movie star awfulness (Jack Black going cold turkey in the jungle, Ben Stiller trying to become a "serious" actor, Brandon T Jackson obsessing over his "Booty Sweat" branding), "visionary" British theatre directors (Steve Coogan) and generally just destroying cinema excess by almost personifying it. The opening sequence - after a series of genuinely hilarious and note perfect fake trailers - is a massive, epic battle in the Vietnamese jungle, parodying Platoon and other Vietnam movie cliches and culminating in an immense explosion.
Stiller seems to be telling us just how ridiculous Hollywood movies are, how obscene the expense and the spectacle, then going to ridiculous expense in order to deliver outrageous spectacle. The story picks up near the end of the shoot of a hugely ambitious and expensive Viet-epic called Tropic Thunder, based on the memoir by grizzled, hook-handed vet Nick Nolte. Fading action star Tuck Speedman (Stiller) leads the cast, supported by Downey, Jack Black's gross-out comedian, Jackson's crossover rapper, and Jay Baruchel as the lucky character actor given a small supporting part. But the director (Coogan) is over his head and unable to corral his cast of egos, and after a disastrous scene loses millions, he drags the principals out into the jungle to shoot guerrilla-style, and is promptly blown up by a mine, leaving the squabbling actors trekking through the jungle, pursued by armed drug militia and unsure of what is real and what is not.
Part of why Tropic Thunder works so well is because Stiller has gone to such lengths to make sure it looks, sounds and moves like one of the spectacles it so mercilessly mocks. Shot beautifully by John Toll and scored by Theodore Shapiro, it is only the script - alternately razor-sharp and full of deadpan stupidity - and the brilliant performances which make it clear it can be both broad and subtle by turns. The climax features a huge gun battle, jungle buildings exploding in huge orange fireballs, while also highlighting Downey Jr having a literal meltdown, shedding character personas like old lizard skins.
It is magnificently quotable - "Never go full retard" is just the start of it, and each of the main actors has at least one great or hilarious moment, exploring their characters many issues and insecurities.
It's one of the great comedies of the last decade, and it rewards multiple viewings.

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