For the years leading up to Tropic Thunder (2008), Ben Stiller had been coasting on his patented, one-note neurotic doormat shtick in films like Night at the Museum (2006), The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and others. What happened to the guy who could play a self-destructive junkie screenwriter in Permanent Midnight (1998) and a dorky romantic in There’s Something About Mary (1998)? Stiller, at times, is more interesting behind the camera as director of the Generation X comedy Reality Bites (1994), the black comedy about stalking and television, The Cable Guy (1996), and the hilarious fashion world satire Zoolander (2001).
With Tropic Thunder, Stiller returned to being behind the camera (and also in front of it) and decided to take on the Vietnam War sub-genre. In an odd way, we have Oliver Stone to thank for this film. Not just because he made Platoon (1986), which really popularized the sub-genre, but he also rejected Stiller when he auditioned for a role in the film. Stiller never forgot it and now he’s parlayed those feelings of rejection into a film that not only lampoons war films but Hollywood in general.
Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action film star on the decline, still flogging his Scorcher franchise – films that resemble a cross between something Tom Cruise might do and Roland Emmerich’s brain-dead special effects epics. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in low-brow comedies filled with fart jokes that allow him to play multiple characters a la Eddie Murphy (Norbit, anyone?). Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is a five-time Academy Award winner who appears in “serious” films that win all of the important awards just like Russell Crowe.
They are all starring in a Vietnam War movie called Tropic Thunder that is currently being made on location in South Vietnam. The production is on the verge of being in the kind of trouble that almost consumed Apocalypse Now (1979) as Lazarus is upstaging Speedman. First-time director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t control his actors, which is causing the movie to go behind schedule, much to the chagrin of Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), the blustery, Harvey Weinstein-esque head of the studio.
In an effort to save the movie, Cockburn takes the five main actors to a remote jungle area to shoot a bunch of scenes guerrilla-style only to stumble across a rag-tag group of Vietnamese drug runners who assume that the clueless movie stars are actually DEA agents. At first, Speedman and his co-stars think that this is all part of the production but they (except for Speedman) quickly realize that this is for real.
Robert Downey Jr. was rightly praised for his hilarious performance as an actor who goes so deep into character that he undergoes “pigmentation alteration” surgery to darken his skin in order play an African American soldier. Downey’s commitment to the role is almost as dedicated as Lazarus’ and he gets some of the film’s best lines, including such gems as “Man, I don’t drop character ’till I done the DVD commentary,” and “I know who I am. I’m the dude playin’ the dude, disguised as another dude!”
It’s not too hard to figure out the real-life Hollywood power players that Stiller’s film satirizes with Cruise’s Grossman channeling the abusive reputation of the aforementioned Weinstein and Downey poking fun at the way-too serious on-and-off-screen antics of Crowe. Unlike all of those Scary Movie spoofs, Stiller understands that a good satire plays it straight on the surface. Admittedly, he’s got a much bigger budget to play with ($100 million+) than any two of those dime-a-dozen spoof movies so he’s able to hire the likes of A-list cinematographer John (The Thin Red Line) Toll and cast marquee name actors like Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black instead of C-listers like Carmen Electra to make Tropic Thunder look like the slick war films he is sending up. Of course, the danger in doing this is to become the very thing you’re trying to parody, but fortunately Stiller doesn’t fall into this trap.
Every generation needs a Mel Brooks and Stiller takes up where the legendary comedian left off – before he became irrelevant and painfully unfunny. Stiller goes after the usual suspects of the genre: Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter (1978), and even a sly reference to a scene from Predator (1987), but Tropic Thunder is more than a game of spot-the-reference that spoof movies tend to devolve into. It actually has something to say other than Hollywood is excessive. This is one of Stiller’s most ambitious film to date and demonstrated that he can play in the same big leagues that fellow comedian-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau has also graduated to with Iron Man (2008). They both started off with very modest films and have shown a very definite learning curve with each subsequent film they’ve helmed. Tropic Thunder has everything you’d want from a big budget, R-rated comedy.