“Tropic Thunder”

20 Nov

Tropic Thunder (Director’s Cut)
Starring
Ben Stiller Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Bill Hader, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride
Written by
Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Coen
Directed by
Ben Stiller
Original release: August 13, 2008
DVD release:
November 18, 2008
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, and drug material.

War is hell. But so is moviemaking, especially when it’s bankrolled by a draconian sadist who regards the process as a bloodsport, its foot soldiers little more than helpless figures to berate and abuse from the safety of a Hollywood bunker a few continents away.

That’s not the only headache plaguing rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) as he attempts to bring retired sergeant Four Leaf Tayback’s (Nick Nolte) Vietnam memoir, Tropic Thunder, to life. The mega-budget project is sinking disastrously fast. As Access Hollywood cheerfully reports, it’s already a month behind schedule just five days in, thanks in part to the effects man’s (Danny McBride at full throttle) un-filmed orgasmic napalm blitz. There’s also the human pyrotechnics within the movie’s high-caliber cast, a self-absorbed hydra of insecurity and vice.

Action hero Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is trying to improve his plummeting stock after an ill-advised dramatic turn in the shameless Oscar bid Simple Jack sent him retreating to the security of a proven franchise. His co-star, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), is the complete opposite, a respected five-time Academy Award winner so dedicated to his craft he underwent an expensive “pigmentation alteration” to play Thunder’s Sgt. Lincoln Osiris, an African-American saucier from New Orleans, and will not, as he says, “break character ’til I done the DVD commentary.” (Which isn’t entirely true. On the actual cast track, Downey speaks as Osiris for most of the film then switches to Lazarus’ Australian twang before finally resurfacing as himself at the fade.)

Rounding out the main cast — in both the production and their own minds — are Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the architect of a cinematic flatulence empire as well as an equally impressive pharmaceutical dependence, and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a multimedia empire unto himself as rapper/mogul/merchandiser. A film career’s just another acquisition to him. The only actor who seems grateful for the work is the fresh-faced Kevin Sandusky (Freaks and Geeks Jay Baruchel, the Apatow stable “sleeper”). It’s his first major motion picture, making him the Private Chris Taylor in a battle-scarred Tinseltown platoon.

Tropic Thunder’s a lot of things: a satire of high-minded war fare (Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter) down to a period-appropriate soundtrack that’s reduced many a timeless single to standard accompaniment for majestic shots of helicopters against exotic landscapes lush and scorched, and wide-orbed grunts on the move under ominous cover of jungle (The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” and Ten Years After’s “I’d Love to Change the World,” the white-blues-rock “Ball of Confusion”), as well as a send-up of the revisionist fantasies (the Missing in Action and Rambo series) that recast “Charlie” as drug runners and/or barbarians still torturing American M.I.A.s two decades post-evacuation.

But it’s Hollywood itself that gets the deftest kick. Aside from the whiny talent and beleaguered crew, including the effects man so explosives-happy he somehow lost a finger on Driving Miss Daisy, there’s ruthless studio head Les Grossman, played by Tom Cruise as the anti-Jerry Maguire in a bald skullcap over a puffy body laced with enough hair to keep septuplets warm through spring. Five-star generals have nothing on this guy. He can simultaneously threaten someone in his office and over the phone, and somehow, in his rage, keep them straight. When Speedman’s agent Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) confronts him over a contract point guaranteeing his client an on-location TiVO (his dedication to this clause will surprise you), Grossman colorfully promises a painful procedure requiring near-surgical determination, then assures the woman on his Bluetooth that he isn’t talking to her. But, he calmly adds, “I will rip your tits off if you don’t get me those theaters.” Naturally, his cold-blooded demeanor makes him the perfect non-negotiator after Speedman is kidnapped by Flaming Dragon, a Cambodian heroin cartel.

When Tropic Thunder was released in August, it was greeted with seemingly endless controversy. First, there was the issue of Downey’s performance in blackface, adding a surreal edge to the movie’s own preoccupation with Downey’s performance in blackface. Kirk Lazarus may enjoy critical acclaim and adulation among his peers, but his Method zeal is likely the result of a lifelong identity crisis. Lincoln Osiris isn’t a statement, but a challenge, and another shell in which to hide. When the shoot’s genuine black actor, Alpa Chino, expresses resentment, it comes as a shock to him. Are they not brothers? That Kirk then attempts to defuse the situation with the Jeffersons theme illustrates the depth of his cluelessness. Personally, after several years of watching Downey phone in sardonic self-variations, Thunder was a refreshing reminder of the Chaplin Downey, the Less Than Zero Downey, the Oscar-nominated Downey who invested his blood.

When that furor finally settled, special interest groups rose to protest an exchange between Speedman and the Osiris-laden Lazarus on their chosen craft. At issue was the repeated use of the word retard — in fact, the scene in question has come to be known as the “full retard” clip — which, admittedly, is used insensitively but not maliciously by either character.

The sequence is more an observation of how desperately some actors pursue critical hosannas and respectability. The easiest road seems to be through the mentally challenged, as proven in mawkish Oscar-winning and -nominated performances by the likes of Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), and the late Peter Sellers (Being There) — all of which, despite their intent, regard the disabled as childlike and safe, often awarding them, as Lazarus points out, special powers as compensation for what they otherwise lack. The actors themselves imbue their portrayals with an almost subconscious wink, as if to assure audiences they’re only pretending. The exceptions, Lazarus observes, are instances like Sean Penn’s I Am Sam and Speedman’s own Simple Jack (I would also add Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), which shared a common problem. “You went full retard, man,” he explains. “Never go full retard.”

These were but minor bumps in an otherwise near-flawless comedy — quite an accomplishment for Stiller, whose last such effort, Zoolander (2001), was an enjoyable if scattershot skewering of the fashion industry. Tropic Thunder is more focused, and Stiller seems comfortable enough with the subject’s comic possibilities (he should!) to take risks like the Kirk Lazarus/Lincoln Osiris character and his own performance in the hilarious snippets from Simple Jack; its dialogue, which includes such unforgettable sap as “Mama, I’ll see you again tonight in my head movies. But this head movies makes my eyes rain,” is spot-on and unforgiving in its mockery.

Although Osiris will go down as one of Downey’s most scrumptious roles, his Lazarus is just as affecting, with his impossibly blue eyes and a soulful stare that conceals much pain. Jack Black is Jack Black under a manic blonde crew-cut, but on my third viewing I noticed something subtle that endeared me to his Jeff Portnoy. He seems to have researched his Tropic Thunder film-within-a-film role of “Fats” by watching tons of World War II films on late-night TV. While his playmates attempt to lend their roles a gritty if melodramatic realism, Portnoy channels the wisecrackin’ street tough who just wants to get back home to Brooklyn and his beloved Dodgers. He is a man out of time, even in movie time. Nick Nolte, with that ragged voice evocative of cigarettes drowned in bourbon, makes the perfect Four Leaf Tayback, who might be hunched over, bedraggled, and damaged for reasons beyond wartime experience. Nobody’s better than Nolte at playing down and out.

The director’s cut is roughly 13 minutes longer than the theatrical release; most excisions were made to eliminate redundancy or overtly cartoonish violence. The only restored sequence that adds to the overall movie is an extended beach party scene celebrating the end of the first week’s shoot. Here we learn more about Alpa Chino apart from the main group; he travels with an entourage and a bodyguard so efficient he limits access to his man even with Cockburn, the film’s director; what business could he possibly have? Chino has his own plans for the movie, like a tie-in music video with convulsive dancers and lots of exotic booty. The hapless Cockburn’s not the only one with such problems: Sandusky’s so insignificant that Portnoy doesn’t recognize him, even after shooting with him all day. (Mangling the kid’s name is one of Thunder’s running gags.) Portnoy, of course, is on the hunt for his connection and jonesing for a fix. Meanwhile, Speedman airs his deep-seated resentments by reciting from a children’s book he co-authored, The Boy Everybody Was Jealous Of.

Tropic Thunder wallows joyously in its own meta-ness, a big-budget war flick lampooning big-budget war flicks with the satirical spirit of Dr. Strangelove — that is, if the President and Jack D. Ripper were the same person, coiled beneath the pressed threads of a powerful Hollywood executive whose primary weapons are his earth-rattling tyranny and his cold adherence to the bottom line, even when lives are at stake. Thunder also has a happier ending: the falling action star doesn’t get to ride a bomb, filmic or otherwise, to its eventual impact. Instead, he finally wins the Oscar he’s long coveted, accepting it from Lazarus after their long, brutal adventure together. It’s impossible not to see a little of Stiller peeking through Speedman’s reaction: it’s the face of a man enjoying his cake.

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