Think of all the ways you can hurt yourself laughing, as in fall down, split your sides, bust a gut, blow your mind. You get it all in Tropic Thunder, a knockout of a comedy that keeps you laughing constantly. It’s also killer smart, lacing combustible action with explosive gags. Major props to Ben Stiller, the director, co-producer, co-writer and co-star, who shows us Hollywood at war with its own ginormous ego during the making of a megabudget Vietnam War movie with an uproariously inept cast and crew. Stiller took flak for the other three movies he’s directed: 1994’s Reality Bites was allegedly too soft, 1996’s The Cable Guy too dark, 2001’s Zoolander too airy-fairy. Confession: I liked them all. And I’m nuts about Tropic Thunder, with its dynamite script by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Ethan Cohen. Try to picture Apocalypse Now as conceived by Borat. The man from Kazakhstan doesn’t appear in Tropic Thunder, but damn near everyone else does. And whoever the guy is who plays the short, fat, bald, f-bomb-dropping studio chief, Les Grossman, has a big future. Spoiler alert: It’s Tom Cruise, and whether he’s abusing his assistant (the invaluable Bill Hader) as a “nutless monkey” or indulging in a happy dance that must be seen to be believed, he’s a hoot. Stiller excels as Tugg Speedman, a muscled superstar who has sequelized his franchise as the brawny Scorcher more often than Stallone has dragged Rambo back to the box-office well. Tugg’s one attempt to prove he can act, as a retarded, bucktoothed farmhand who talks to animals in Simple Jack, flopped big time. Taking the role of the Rambo-esque John “Four Leaf” Tayback in Tropic Thunder — the name of the film within the film — can be Tugg’s ticket to legit. The real Four Leaf (Nick Nolte, looking nuttier than his mug shot) is on set to keep things factual. And Tugg’s agent, the Pecker (Matthew McConaughey), is back in L.A. to make sure his client is provided with TiVo even in the jungle (Kauai, Hawaii, standing in for Southeast Asia).
Matching Tugg in diva tantrums and insecurity is famed comic and dope fiend Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), known for The Fatties, a movie series in which Jeff, aping Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, portrays an entire family of prodigious farters. We even see a trailer for a Fatties flick featuring Black demonstrating a Kama Sutra of flatulence positions. This is Black’s zaniest performance since School of Rock, and he makes Jeff’s turn as a gunnery sarge look convincing as well. Nice touch.
The award for best in show has to go to Robert Downey Jr. — Iron Man himself — as Kirk Lazarus, an Aussie actor who has already collected five Oscars for losing himself in his roles, most recently as a priest who lusts to get inside the monk robes of Tobey Maguire. To get inside the skin of African-American Sgt. Lincoln Osiris in Tropic Thunder, Kirk alters his voice and dyes his skin black. This Chicken George routine pisses off Alpa Chino (a terrific Brandon T. Jackson), the hip-hop hitmaker (“I Love Tha’ Pussy”) hired to bring street cred to the movie, despite merchandising his ass with a “Booty Sweat” energy drink and his “Alpa Chinos” menswear line. Alpa can’t stop Kirk from talking black even when the camera stops rolling. “I don’t break character till the DVD commentary,” says Kirk. Downey has a ball with the role, and his explanation to Stiller about the dangers of going “full retard” if you want to win an Oscar belongs in a comedy time capsule. Downey is so off-the-charts hilarious that you want to stand up and cheer.
The low-comic ensemble acting in Tropic Thunder is of the highest caliber. Jay Baruchel (Knocked Up) is perfect as Kevin Sandusky, the newbie stuck in a cast of spoiled-brat all-stars. Steve Coogan is deadpan delicious as Damien Cockburn, the British director who is in way over his addled head. And add a big fat shout-out to Pineapple Express madman Danny McBride as Cody, the special-effects techie with an itch to pull the kaboom trigger. Despite having almost blinded Jamie Lee Curtis on Freaky Friday, Cody still wants to blow shit up. And, oh, what fireworks. Thanks to master cinematographer John Toll (Academy Award winner for Braveheart and Legends of the Fall), the movie looks like the 100 million bucks it reportedly cost. Class, meet crass.
The plot fires up when Cody and Four Leaf convince the director to get the actors away from their entourages and shoot guerrilla-style in the jungle with hidden cameras. That’s when they encounter the real guns of a heroin cartel, the Flaming Dragons, led by Tran, a sawed-off 12-year-old terrorist played by star-in-the-making Brandon Soo Hoo. When Tran captures Tugg, death is held at bay because Tran and his cronies are big fans of Simple Jack. They dress up Tugg and force him to act out the entire movie. “More stupid,” says Tran, whipping Tugg into beating the studios at their own idiot game.
Is it too much? Sometimes. Tropic Thunder can be silly, shallow and way too inside. But how do you hate on a movie that is willing to do anything for a smile? Plus, there is a shrewd method to Stiller’s madness. He knows firsthand that Hollywood is a microcosm for a world that has swallowed its own marketing strategy. Every character in Tropic Thunder is delusional. Having given up on truth, they still do their damnedest to fake it. Stiller has done a howlingly comic hatchet job on the town that has made him a playa. Yet he’s caught up, as we are, in the fantasies it’s selling. We enter this bizarro fun house giggling at the clowns on view, but we exit — and here’s the wow factor — laughing at ourselves.