Ben Stiller must have known he was taking a risk with the subject-matter of Tropic Thunder and for a while the pickets outside the cineplexes must have rattled him. But then people went to see it. And then they went back to see it with their friends, because, quite frankly, everyone is in need of a giggle right now, and laughing at Robert Downey Jr laughing at Russell Crowe via the strange and anxiety-inducing medium of face-paint seems to have hit the spot for a good many people.
Tropic Thunder opens up with some of the funniest spoof movie trailers ever made, and then goes on to chart a film within a film, an insanely over-ambitious war movie based on the fraudulent memoirs of a Vietnam Vet. Rambo Redux with a sprinkling of Monty Python, perhaps based on the true stories of the filming of Apocalypse Now (when the Filipino gunships broke from their movie appearances to strafe insurgent forces on the nearby hillsides and then return for the next shot), Tropic Thunder skewers the hubris, narcissism and mental instability of most of those involved in the movie business – actors in particular.
Tom Cruise (in amazing form and operating quite far from his usual comfort zones) is physically unrecognisable as the big-shot studio producer trying to pull the financial plug the whole time, and is Steve Coogan adequate as the feckless director-for-hire who sees his project crumbling before his eyes.. However its Robert Downey Jr, Jack Black and Ben Stiller as the jobbing actors who are the true subject of the most savage satire here, the most pointed barbs – courtesy of Ben Stiller’s script (yes – he writes, directs and acts in his own movie).
Essentially these deluded thespians find themselves in a real war zone but don’t quite realise that they are, cut off from the main production, set adrift in the deep jungle and convinced they are being filmed covertly. That’s the joke, anyhow, and it works quite well.
Is Robert Downey Jr blacked up and playing a high-maintenance Australian star simply beyond the bounds of taste? Is the repeated use of the word retarded really all that necessary? Possibly not, but for some reason these queasy elements really don’t seem to matter. There’s not a mean bone in this frequently grotesque movie, and even the actors seem happy poking fun at themselves and the pretensions and insecurities of their trade.
I went to Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder on the same evening, and much to my surprise, preferred Tropic Thunder. It’s a much cruder movie altogether compared to the subtleties and gently-rolling student humour of Pineapple.
But it’s also an awful lot more funny.
**** Four Stars Out of Five