Tropic Thunder: Robert Downey Jr. propels satire

Despite the media scuffle, the biggest target of ridicule in Tropic Thunder—a flashy, nasty, rip-roaring and assaultive sendup of Hollywood—is not the mentally challenged.

The targets of this extreme comedy’s free-flowing contempt are the stars, makers, brokers, miscellaneous supplicants and even die-hard fans of Hollywood, all portrayed as challenged in some fashion: intellectually, ethically, aesthetically, sartorially, chemically and longitudinally.

Tropic Thunder, named after the memoir by Vietnam veteran John “Four Leaf” Tacyback (Nick Nolte) details the making of a picture touted as “the biggest war film ever.” Except the movie is helmed by a prestigious but less-than-competent director with a stupidly hilarious name, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) and stars a cast of actors whose egos are as big as water tanks and fragile as quails’ eggs. The picture is off-schedule and over budget, the performers are messing up right and left.

To get the film back on track, Cockburn leads his actors deep into the jungle to scare good performances out of them.  Call it “The Blair Witch Project” approach, where actors can’t be trusted to actually act. From there, the production becomes nothing but chaos. In fact, it ceases being a production at all.

Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, in a stunning cameo) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. The rest of the movie involves hilarious encounters between the crew, their capture at the hands of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, and their subsequent escape.

Now trapped in the Vietnamese jungle, the quartet of actors must attempt to deal with each other.   A visibly jacked-up Ben Stiller, directing his first feature since Zoolander, plays action hero Tugg Speedman (think Rambo), whose career is in decline. There’s Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson), a black rapper who has made bank peddling ‘Booty Sweat,’ the energy drink that helps buyers “tap into some ass.” Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is the import from the comedy scene, best known for The Fatties, a movie series in which Jeff, aping Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor, portrays an entire family of prodigious farters.  Rounding up the group is Robert Downey, Jr., who, post-Ironman, seems to have acquired the Midas touch in Hollywood.  On screen, he essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award winning white Aussie so wedded to Method-acting that he has had “pigmentation-alteration procedure” surgery to make him black.

The performances range from adequate to stellar, with one exception. Downey, Jr. stands head and shoulders above the rest of the crew, and his mastery of accents is impeccable. Stiller is his usual self: funny in small doses. Jack Black, however, is disappointing; too loud and over the top, he hams throughout the movie. Tom Cruise’s stirring cameo, however, more than makes up for any ground lost due to Black’s inadequacy.

The jokes are often funny, and sometimes downright hilarious, although the movie presupposes knowledge of pop culture.  At one point, poor Tugg Speedman is hurting inside because his previous film was “Simple Jack”—where, with excruciating lack of taste, he plays a young man with mental disabilities that failed to pique anyone’s interest.  The film died horribly at the box office.

Lazarus tells him why: “Never go full-retard. You should only go part-retard to get an Oscar. Think about it: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man—part-retard . . . But Sean Penn in I Am Sam? Full retard!”  Stiller goes for full-satire; maybe part-satire would have kept the PC police away, but it wouldn’t have been as funny.