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Non-Review Review: Tropic Thunder

I make no apologies, I love this movie. Though it might not always hit the perfect notes, it maintains Ben Stiller’s pitch-perfect ability to just throw tonnes of stuff at the wall and if even 30% of the jokes hit, you’re at least grinning for the film’s runtime. He also has a fantastic cast full of the talented and the one-note, all of whom are perfectly chosen for the roles that they play within Stiller’s war comedy. Sure, the film may lose focus a bit, and it has a fairly short attention span, but this means that Stiller isn’t afraid to pull away from a gag that isn’t working.

Jungle Fever

Jungle Fever

I’ve read that Tropic Thunder is funnier the more that you know about movies – and maybe it’s true. Myself and my brother are far fonder of it than my parents. There’s a fair amount of jokes – actors playing disabled characters as Oscar bait, the references to Apocalypse Now – that would go over the heads of your younger audience familiar with Stiller’s other works. Understandably the movie doesn’t have quite the same broad appeal as Stiller’s directorial debut Zoolander, but it’s simply a matter of preference: Zoolander is a relatively inoffensive broad slapstick comedy, whereas Tropic Thunder is a brutal pastiche of Hollywood excess, modern values and generally has a meaner streak about it.

The film is also an action comedy, in that it requires Stiller to stage more impressive setpieces than he did earlier. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Mainly the smaller components of the sequences work better than the whole – for example a shoutout to Willam Dafoe’s last ditch escape attempt in Platoon during the opening sequence or a homage to Saving Private Ryan. The action isn’t spectacular, but it never overshadows the comedic element and that’s where the script finds its feet.

A comedy is only as good as its actors. Much has been observed about Robert Downey Jnr.’s Oscar-nominated performance, and it is incredibly impressive. Downey controls every scene in which he appears, casually dismissing his costars with all manner of politically incorrect cynicism and in-character nonsense (“I don’t read the script, script reads me”). It’s no understatement to observe that the role is one that walks the line, and it takes considerable charisma to avoid offending anyone with the character – and Downey delivers in spades.

The other standout supporting performance is Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, the vulgar and cynical Hollywood producer controlling the purse-strings on the doomed war movie. It isn’t a brave or particularly well-written part, but Cruise goes all out in his performance. There is no ego, no sensitivity. He manages to make you doubt that this is Tom Cruise (movie star), and instead reminds you of Tom Cruise (actor). It helps that there’s no sense of parody or no fear of going over the top and – along with Downey – Cruise gets some of the movie’s best lines, played entirely straight. It’s hard to believe that the following line can be hilarious even before it reaches the inevitable punchline, but Cruise’s delivery just sells it the smarmy and superior condescension so very well:

Speedman is a dying star. A white dwarf headed for a black hole. That’s physics. It’s inevitable. The universe… is talking to us right now. You just gotta listen.

That’s to say nothing of the other supporting cast members. Jack Black isn’t at all irritating as the heroine-addicted comedian with shades of Eddie Murphy. Matthew McConaughey adapts to funny comedy (from unfunny comedy) quite well (again by playing the role of action star Tugg Speedman’s agent completely earnestly). Danny McBride is entertaining as usual and Bill Hader manages to bring his own understated humour to the role of a put-upon assistent to Grossman. Stiller himself takes the lead and plays it quite well – even if he can’t convey Speedman’s innocence with the same overstated giddiness you used to bring Derek Zoolander to life. The final actor deserving mention is Nick Nolte, who plays his standard default role perfectly as the no-armed officer whose story has been adapted into the lumbering production that has stalled.

The movie does tend to falter a bit. Some of the B-plots (mainly the ones focusing on Speedman’s search for an identity) don’t quite live up to the main narrative and the movie does require on a reasonable knowledge of film in order to get the vast majority of references. Even without them, the film still works really well. I particularly like the subtle touches, such as a fictional Best Actor race featuring a wheelchair-bound Tom Hanks, a blind Sean Penn and a gay Toby Maguire (as well as Jon Voight for some reason).

One Response

  1. Tropic Thunder sometimes tries too hard to bring laughs, with some easily offensive ones, but is other than that, a hilarious spoof, that is boosted even more by the great performances.

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