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Friday, Nov. 7, 2008

'Tropic Thunder'

This is war, you goofball


Hollywood has been feeding on itself a bit lately, with a string of comedies that parody its own predictable tendencies. "Scary Movie" sent up the slasher genre: "Team America" took on the jingoistic, kick-ass action movie; and "Meet the Spartans" speared "300," while also digressing into about a kazillion other pop-cultural references, very few of which were actually funny.

Tropic Thunder Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Apocalypse trio: Jack Black, Ben Stiller and Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder" © 2008 DREAMWORKS LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Director: Ben Stiller
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov. 22, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The most ripe target for the withering death ray of satire at the moment would seem to be the superhero movie: Their recent pomposity is practically begging someone to burst their bubble. But so far we have no takers.

Instead, the most recent chapter in movie piss-takes is Ben Stiller's "Tropic Thunder," which is some kind of meta-parody of the Hollywood war movie. Stiller, to his credit, goes well beyond just satirizing a few movies — "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now," "Rambo," and "Saving Private Ryan," to name but a few — to engage in a more general assault on the industry itself.

Psychotic, testosterone-fueled producers with gold chains and chest hair bellowing abuse into their cell phones? Whiny, pampered stars covered in a swarm of personal assistants — who expect the world to wait while they consider their "motivation?" Smarmy agents who harass, harangue and hyperventilate about how their client still hasn't been hooked up to cable on the remote jungle set where he's filming. Stiller's gotcha covered.

"Tropic Thunder" may not be "The Player," but it's certainly a shot across the industry's bow. Stiller, who directed and wrote the film, opens it — before any credits even come up — with some sneaky and hilariously on-the-mark fake trailers, which feature the three lead characters from "Tropic Thunder." Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action-hero in the Schwarzenegger/Stallone mode, and we see the trailer for the latest installment in his post-apocalypse "Scorcher" series: "Now the man who made a difference five times before is about to make a difference again," says the deep-voiced trailer guy. "Only this time, it's different."

Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in "The Fatties," a gross-out comedy about obesity and farting, in which the star plays all the roles under prosthetic "fat suits," rather like Eddie Murphy in "The Nutty Professor." (Portnoy will later whine to a TV reporter, "A lot of people say the movie is just about farts, but it's really about family!" Spot on — I'm sure I've heard this at a press conference before.)

Best of the bunch is the trailer for "Satan's Alley," starring "five-time Oscar winner" Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), which is a pitch-perfect spoof of the "highbrow" art-house trailer, as perfected by Miramax, for a movie that seems to be "Brokeback Mountain" in a monastery.

When the film proper begins, we see Speedman, Portnoy and Lazarus on set shooting a war movie, the latter in blackface and fully in character as a '60s "soul brother" G.I., something that doesn't endear him to costar Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a black rapper making his screen debut.

Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is at his wit's end trying to deal with these prima-donnas, so when war vet/adviser Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) suggests putting them "in the sh**," and shooting guerrilla style in the jungle to make it feel real, Cockburn jumps at the idea. The presence of land mines, wild animals and a Burmese drug-lord's private army, makes the whole venture far more real than anyone expected. Stiller draws great laughs from his characters' reluctance to believe that the real war erupting around them is anything more than some inspired special effects.

This is, of course, a Ben Stiller movie, which means it's often silly, stoopid, and crude, and only sometimes is it funny while doing those three things. Gay jokes and scatological humor abound, though in a rather knee-jerk way. There are some absolutely brilliant bits, though — the fake trailers, Downey's entire performance, and an astounding, almost unrecognizable cameo by one of Hollywood's biggest stars, which I won't spoil for you by revealing it here.

A lot of times Stiller seems to be having his cake and eating it too: We learn that Tugg Speedman tried to revive his career by playing a mentally "challenged" character in the film "Simple Jack"; this allows Stiller to skewer the Academy's tendency to give Oscars to such performances, and to also include over-the-top "retard" jokes at the same time. This scene culminates in a hilarious lecture by Lazarus, who compares "Rain Man" and "Forrest Gump" to "I Am Sam," and cautions Tugg to "never go full retard. Just ask Sean Penn."

The movie's self-obsessed, vain actors all come around by the last reel in which they escape from the drug lord's camp, in a bit straight out of the latest "Rambo." But a feel-good movie this is not. Like Stiller's best (and criminally underrated) flick of recent years, "The Cable Guy," "Tropic Thunder" is informed by a rather dim view of human nature. In Hollywood, at least, this is a natural response.


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