Tropic Thunder is a full-on satire of Hollywood’s reality-distortion field, and it is hilarious from beginning to end, but especially in the middle. Robert Downey, Jr. is astoundingly funny as Kurt Lazarus, an Australian method actor who undergoes surgery to make himself appear black and who gets so lost in the character he can’t get out. Ben Stiller’s action star parody character, Tugg Speedman, has a similar dilemma. Watching Kurt Lazarus in character try to talk Tugg Speedman out of character was one of my favorite moments.

Hollywood loves to satirize itself, and here the studio showed its love by sparing no expense. Just like the movie within the movie of the same name, Tropic Thunder takes place in deep jungle locations, features many an egocentric star and redonkulously huge explosions.

You probably already know the 30-sec synopsis plot. Kurt and Tugg are two of a team of five prima donna actors who get lost in the jungle while making a Vietnam war movie, but still think they are making a movie. Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson are the other three in the ‘elite special forces unit,’ but they never develop much in the way of subplots. Additional supporting players include Steve Coogan, as a Brit director who is in over his head; Danny McBride, whose turn in Pineapple Express made it so I will never forget his name, again stealing scenes as pyrotechnics expert (who nearly ended his career when he almost blinded Jamie Lee Curtis on Freaky Friday); and Nick Nolte as the Vietnam vet upon whom the movie is based.

But Tropic Thunder is really a three man show, with Stiller, Downey Jr. and surprise guest

Continue reading about Tropic Thunder (spoilers)… Tom Cruise (!) having the time of his life playing a Machiavellian studio head.

The movie starts out with some great parody trailers (pay attention to the studio logos for each film) then quickly goes into the climactic scene from the movie-within-the-movie. The rather realistic-looking gore in this scene, and in Steve Coogan’s last scene, repulsed me more than made me laugh. Thankfully, after that the movie had less gore and more funny.

Once the team is wandering in the jungle, bickering with each other and generally behaving almost uncannily like real Hollywood stars have behaved in a similar situation, the movie really starts firing on all cylinders. I don’t think I will ever get over how hilarious it is that Tugg Speedman kills a panda.

As for controversy around the Simple Jack backstory, I would’ve said before I saw the movie that it was pretty obvious that it was satirizing actors who think playing characters who are mentally challenged is a shortcut to an Oscar. And it was. As Robert Downey, Jr. playing Kurt Lazarus playing Sergeant Osiris says, the key is not to “go full retard” but to be only partially mentally challenged like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Sean Penn, he says, did so in 2002 with I Am Sam and “went home empty-handed.” This sort of cold calculation on the part of actors drumming for awards is spot on. I’m not sure how I would feel about the part where Tugg is forced to play ‘Jack’ for the gang of drug-runners if, say, I was the parent of a mentally challenged kid. The drug-runners appear to be emotionally moved by the portrayal, and the underlying suggestion is that Tugg can connect with the role because deep down he has a certain empathy for the character. On the other hand, are we the audience supposed to laugh at Tugg’s delusion or just that he’s walking and talking funny? It’s a fine distinction, and I don’t blame those who are sensitive for believing that many audience members won’t be able to make it.

On the other hand, these critics, namely Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, have their own kind of delusions if they can go on NPR and baldy assert that the movie is offensive while openly admitting they haven’t seen it. All they are doing is getting more people to see the movie (fine with me) and putting their cause on the wrong side of freedom of speech. Better that they actually used the movie as a platform for raising consciousness on the issue and demonstrate that they realize the filmmakers were joking, even if Shriver himself doesn’t find it funny. Zen koan: Would you take someone without a sense of humor’s opinion about a comedy seriously?

One last technical note, I don’t know if it was the acoustics of the theater I was in, but several of the lines seemed to have gotten lost in the mix. In a movie where every line is so funny, this was a palpable loss. Or maybe it was intentional, to spike DVD sales.

Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux Q&A

Co-Screenwriter Justin Theroux Vulture interview
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