After months of doom, gloom and swarms of mediocre Egyptian flicks, a comedy that’s actually funny is finally released prior to the upcoming fall season, which looks even more disconsolate than last year’s.
That said ensemble comedy is a major Hollywood production and surprisingly directed by Ben Stiller, one of the most predictable American comedians working today.
But “Tropic Thunder is not another standard Hollywood comedy, nor is it an archetypal Stiller vehicle. “Thunder is madcap satire of Hollywood produced by the same figures it lampoons. It’s a silly, politically incorrect picture that never takes itself too seriously or, unlike the majority of Egyptian comedies, plunges into pointless schmaltz.
“Tropic Thunder is the title of a new big-budget Vietnam War film, based on the memoir of war veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), starring three of Hollywood s biggest stars. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a fading Stallone-like action star. Prior to “Thunder, Speedman took a failed shot at serious acting playing a mentally challenged farmer who can speak to animals in “Simple Jack , a film dubbed one of the worst movies of all time.
Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian and a heroin addict known for his crass fart jokes in the hit film “The Fatties and its sequel – Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor immediately springs to mind.
Robert Downey Jr. is five-time Academy Award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus known for his radical and intense preparation methods. For his latest role, playing an African-American soldier, Lazarus undergoes a controversial pigmentation operation to darken his skin.
Being the dedicated actor he is, Lazarus stays in character off-screen, much to the dismay of black rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) who showers the set with his new energy drink “Booty Sweat.
The “Thunder set is fraught with disasters from day one. A major accidental explosion, akin to Blake Edwards’ equally hilarious opening sequence in “The Party, puts the film’s novice British director Damien Cockburn’s (Steve ‘Alan Partridge’ Coogan) neck on the line.
Watching the film slipping rapidly out of his hands, Damien decides to throw his principle spoilt actors in the middle of the South Asian jungle and shoots his film guerrilla style. Little do they know, Hollywood’s finest find themselves in one the world’s largest, most dangerous drug zones run by a 12-year-old who happens to be a big fan of “Simple Jack, the only film he and his gang have ever seen.
Stiller has made a career out of playing emasculated men subjected to an onslaught of humiliation, from “There s Something About Mary to “A Night at the Museum. The easy route Stiller has chosen to take (or is it the path Hollywood drew for him?) garnered millions of dollars, placing him among the marquee of the world’s biggest stars, but failed to register with critics.
Only by breaking this mold does he indeed exhibit the talent he prominently displayed in “Saturday Night Live and “The Ben Still Show. Whether it’s his cocky fitness guru in “Dodgeball, his dramatic turn in “Permanent Midnight, or even his shocking guest appearance in British TV hit “Extras, the edginess of Stiller’s best performance were a far cry from his usual irksome screen personas.
His previous three directorial efforts were much more ambitious and uncompromising than his characters despite their shortcomings. All his directed films, “Thunder included, took a stab at different facets of showbiz.
“Reality Bites is Gen X romance about the pitfalls of reality TV. The underrated black comedy “The Cable Guy, starring Jim Carrey, is a menacing portrait of the invasive power of the media, while “Zoolander is an oddball send-up of the fashion world, starring the world’s most dim-witted male model.
Thematically, “Thunder isn’t a major departure from previous films directed by Stiller. It is, however, much larger in scope, more focused, sharper and, most importantly, funnier.
Stiller’s script, co-written with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, targets every aspect of the industry; the self-absorbed stars, talent agents, heartless studio executives, as well as war movies in general. It’s not as clever as Robert Altman’s “The Player or as bitter as the upcoming “What Just Happened? but it doesn’t really need to be.
Part of the comedy is driven from the classic war films “Thunder plays homage to: from the madness of “Apocalypse Now to “Platoon, exemplified in the William Dafoe’s iconic Christ-like figure hilariously recreated by Stiller.
The larger part of the comedy though is generated from the brilliantly drawn characters. Black uses his burly physique to maximum effect, particularly in the scenes where his character starts to suffer from heroin withdrawal.
Stiller, the actor, is the weakest link, but he does have his moments, especially near the end when Speedman develops into a combination of Angelina Jolie and Christopher Walken’s delusional victim in “The Deer Hunter.
It’s Downey Jr. though who, yet again, steals the show. Adopting a ghetto accent and the over the top, stereotypical black mannerisms, Lazarus complains of racism, contemplates the degradation of his “people’s culture and calls Chino “brother. He occasionally allows his Australian accent to slip, defends “Crocodile Dundee whom he calls “a national treasure and explains to Speedman that he should’ve not gone “full retard with “Simple Jack.
The other scene-stealer is Tom Cruise’s cameo, whose bald, overweight, ravenous Jewish studio head Les Grossman is arguably his best performance since 1999’s “Magnolia.
Partially inspired by Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone, who famously terminated Cruise’s contract in 2006 following his jump-the-couch incident at Oprah, Grossman is cinema most foul-mouthed studio head who has a penchant for bling-bling and hip-hop. Grossman is a real comic gem, unlike anything Cruise has ever done before.
The considerable amount of slurs involving African-Americans, Jews and the mentally challenged is not meant to be taken seriously. In fact, at a time where everything is regarded from the political correctness lens, it’s refreshing to watch a film that has the guts to break these taboos without being offensive or mean-spirited.
It’s not without its faults. The fake trailers at the beginning are so funny they cast a large shadow over the rest of the film and despite its confrontational attitude, the film occasionally feels safe.
Nevertheless, “Thunder is easily the best comedy of the year. The pompous action is tightly integrated with the comedy, acting as a catalyst for bigger laughs. The comic romp doesn’t slow down until the very last minute, maintaining the fast pace all the way through. And take my word, Robert Downey Jr.’s stunning turn in black paint is guaranteed to obliterate the despondency cast by Ramadan’s current TV dramas.