The bottom line: Comedic veterans dazzle early, but Tropic Thunder is too flimsy to deliver more than a forced take-home message.
If you liked Zoolander, you’ll probably appreciate Tropic Thunder. Both were directed by and star Ben Stiller; both take advantage of pop culture stereotypes; and both do offer moments of brilliance.
But both are also comedy sketches stretched to movie length, and after an opening 20 minutes of genius, lampooning every Hollywood stereotype, Tropic Thunder can’t quite sustain the spectacular momentum it builds early on.
Ben Stiller directs his first movie since 2001’s Zoolander, centering on a group of egotistical, self-absorbed movie stars shooting a big-budget Vietnam War epic. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, an action star whose quest to be taken seriously has led him to disastrous flops like Chitlin’ and the Dude and Simple Jack. Robert Downey Jr. is Australian character actor and five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, who surgically assumes blackface through a controversial “pigmentation augmentation procedure” to play a black dude. Jack Black is Jeff “Fats” Portnoy. He likes heroin.
Precluding the movie are fictional trailers, including a Brokeback Mountain-esque drama co-starring MTV Movie Awards’ “Best Kiss” winner Tobey McGuire. This follows rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino’s (Brandon T. Jackson) ad for Booty Sweat, his patented energy drink. The standalone trailers are Tropic Thunder at its best: pure sketch perfection.
The following 15 minutes or so continue the ferocious torrent of laughter as the film moves down the line of stereotypical movie types: the pampered, difficult actor; the overly enthusiastic pyrotechnics guy; the British director; Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s sweet-talking, Wii Sports-playing agent and best friend; the ornery billionaire financier, etc. In their universal incompetence, these characters manage to botch an expensive explosion they only had one shot at, putting the movie ever more behind schedule. Desperate, the director takes his actors to the middle of a dangerous jungle, hoping to elicit some real emotion. When the actors lose their way, they’re quickly left to fend for themselves in territory ruled by guerrilla soldiers called The Flaming Dragons.
Lazarus is so committed to his role that he never breaks character, to the annoyance of those around him and especially the actually-black Chino. Their relationship (“What happens when a white guy acts black around a black guy?”) as well as that of Speedman and Lazarus provides most of the laughs while Black is a major disappointment — mostly because his character didn’t have much potential to begin with. All he does is go through withdrawal from lack of “jellybeans” (heroin).
By the end of Tropic Thunder, the movie has moved from a hilarious, leave-no-one-unscathed film industry farce into a tired message about embracing who you really are (Downey covering up his skin is really him covering up what’s inside, yada yada), but the message is forced and out of place. And where Zoolander was a little more unpredictable, you pretty much know what’s going to happen in Tropic Thunder. Still, a trajectory from great to just decent isn’t the worst thing in the world.