Published Aug 13, 2008The umbrella of "parody shields a lot of complicated issues, and Tropic Thunder has faced plenty of inclement political weather on its way to the box office. Surprisingly, recent flak has come not from the fact that Robert Downey, Jr. plays an intense Australian actor who undergoes a cosmetic procedure in order to play a black soldier in this film-within-a-film. Its from another film-within-the-film, featuring Ben Stillers actor/character, called Simple Jack. That performance, in which Stillers Tugg Speedman vies for an Oscar by playing "full retard, has disability groups up in arms over the extensive use of the "r word throughout the movie.
Its just that sort of self-serious controversy that Tropic Thunder has its satirical sights set on. When three actors Jack Black rounds out the triptych as Jeff Portnoy, a comic with a Klumps-like farting franchise as his biggest hit join forces for a war movie, they drive the director (Steve Coogan) crazy, so he opts for a new, more "real approach by sending them "into the shit: a real armed conflict in Vietnam.
Deluded into thinking theyre still on an actors boot camp-style adventure, they blithely wander into dangerous waters and a real action/adventure, too similar to the one they want to film, is the result.
The ammunition Stiller uses to take shots at self-serious actors is plentiful, and he pulls out his rolodex for a slew of self-aware cameos: Tobey Maguire, Jon Voight, Tyra Banks and Lance Bass all join in the fun. But its another "secret performance, in the form of Tom Cruise as a self-absorbed, hip-hop-obsessed, extremely hairy studio exec, who steals Tropic Thunders, um, momentum.
Theres a certain inevitable smugness that comes from actors doing the "look, were mocking ourselves thing but Tropic Thunder gets over that hump by actually becoming the type of action film its parodying, to its credit and detriment. Its conclusion in nearly the same form as a mock version early in the film veers uncomfortably into the lane of bad-bad when theyre striving for mock-bad. And Jack Black, doing an increasingly fuzzy copy of Jack Black, rarely seems in on the joke.
Ironically, its in the confident hands of the very actors the film is taking shots at Cruise and Downey, Jr. that Tropic Thunder really has weight. The rest comes off somewhere between the emperor having no clothes and typical Hollywood close enough for entertaining chuckles, just not as clever as its players seem to think it is. (Dreamworks/Paramount)