Monday, August 8, 2011

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Dudes Playing Dudes Disguised As Other Dudes

- In this hysterical comedy, childish actors currently making a war film get thrown into a real life war situation. Tropic Thunder (2008) is not the first film about actors who are forced to actually be the characters they are portraying (Three Amigos! (1986), Galaxy Quest (1999)) but it may be the best - a terrific action and laugh packed comedy through and through.

This film spoofs war and action films (even taking scenes right out of Platoon (1986), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and others), the overly serious and ego-inflated method actors in Hollywood, the pretentious film industry, and the money-lusting film studio executives. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is the action star who is starting to fall off the Hollywood A-list radar screen, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the drug-addicted comedian trying to do drama, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is the 5-time Oscar-winning method actor, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is the rapper turned actor, and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) is the unknown trying to break into the industry. Together they try to make the best war film they can while they bicker, fight, and find out a lot about themselves in a truly funny way.

Tropic Thunder is a spoof film but it is also slightly grounded in its over-the-top nature. The film is has many definitely exaggerated scenarios but because it sees its characters in a more realistic war situation you will not find any scenes featuring chickens being shot out of a bow or Saddam Hussein getting his head inflated like a beach ball in this film. Tropic Thunder has a lot of shock humor, and while much of it works, some of it does not work at all: a few gags are just not funny and many others are just plain disgusting. Still, the film is mostly filled with great comedy and most of it comes directly out of each actor's delivery.

Robert Downey Jr. is where the spotlight is; and for some people, this is for no other reason than because he is portraying an African American character. Actually, he is really not portraying an African American; he is portraying an Australian who is portraying an African American. Also, let's get something straight: there is no use of "blackface" in this film as many claim.


"Blackface" is not merely making-up one's self to look like an African American - it was a style of show performed from about the mid-19th to mid-20th century exaggerating one's physical features (eyes, lips) to resemble a person of African descent and do nothing but degrade them for laughs. Downey Jr.'s character, Kirk Lazarus, is actually made up to look like a real person of African descent - he is not painted up like Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). But for the purpose of conversation, let's say that Downey Jr. is performing in "blackface" - well, then the use of "blackface" here in Tropic Thunder would be quite different from that seen in the Jim Crow-and-years-prior eras. The Lazarus character is not used to demean African Americans, it is part of the character's outrageous method acting and is used as a satirical jab at other overly serious Hollywood actors: Lazarus has become so insanely into his characters that he has no idea who he really is and actually gets a highly controversial skin pigmentation operation. Plus, in films where the malicious use of blackface occurs like The Birth Of A Nation (1915), there is no African American voice. Here in Tropic Thunder however, Brandon T. Jackson's Alpa Chino character is always there to put Lazarus back in his place when he goes too far and to say how ridiculous he is ("You're Australian, be Australian!").

But on top of all this, the use of so-called "blackface" is not what is funny about Robert Downey Jr.'s performance in the first place. Robert Downey Jr. is simply giving a fantastic individual acting performance in this film, completely lost in two characters (well, three if you count the sexually confused monk) and being extremely funny in every scene. He does not even have to say a word to make you burst out laughing, his expressions are absolutely hilarious and often times you are laughing just because of the look in his eyes. Robert Downey Jr. is even the funniest part of scenes that he is not even the primary focus of; he will be in the background and still be the funniest part of that scene because of how he is reacting to whatever is going on. But Downey Jr. is also dynamite when the film calls for him to be serious. And he does do series, don't be fooled. In fact, some of the best of Downey Jr.'s comedy comes out of him playing the character and scene seriously. But even though this is a spoofing screwball action/comedy, Downey Jr. does go into some serious drama when you least expect it. For those reasons and more, Robert Downey Jr. is almost the whole show by himself.

The rest of the star-studded cast also works well in their roles, even though nobody excels quite the same way that Robert Downey Jr. does. While a bit too much when doing his character's "Simple Jack" character, Ben Stiller is very funny and a good overall lead as action hero Tugg Speedman, I have never been a fan of Jack Black at all but to my great surprise he is actually hilarious as Jeff Portnoy, Brandon T. Jackson is also very funny in his spastic and sarcastic rapper-turned-actor character and Matthew McConaughey is even funny in his actually sizable supporting role as Tugg's agent. An almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise gives a scene stealing performance as his real life feud with studio execs is brought out on screen in his portrayal of the self-centered money-grubbing Les Grossman, and as Cruise grinds his ax he also manages to be pretty funny.


To make the film even better, Tropic Thunder is also very ascetically-pleasing (action scenes and everything else) thanks to Ben Stiller's quick direction and lighting pro John Toll's cinematography. Comedies are not necessarily known (or watched) for their style and the fact that Tropic Thunder includes great cinematography makes it a cut above much of the genre.

Overall, Tropic Thunder is a well-made and outrageously funny comedy, worthwhile simply to see Robert Downey Jr. do his thing.


CBC Rating: 9/10

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