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Tropic Thunder
Directed by Ben Stiller
Rated R

Tropic Thunder puts Hollywood in its sights and its aim is almost always dead-on.

Blow Up the TiVo

Tropic Thunder

It's not easy to make a good movie about the movie industry, and a parody about movies is even trickier.

Some come across as smug and self-absorbed, such as Robert Altman's self-love letter, The Player. Others are disposable trash, a collection of one-liners like the Scary Movie series, which has unfortunately expanded and become the Fill-in-the-Blank Movie series.

On the one hand, Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo sweetly explored the power of movies. On the other hand, his Hollywood Ending was a disastrous piece of nonsense.

Playing up the world's infatuation with celebrities also leads to junk like Ocean's Twelve and America's Sweethearts.

So along comes Tropic Thunder, a smart, politically incorrect flambé of the movie industry and what happens? An ad-hoc coalition of disabilities groups is planning a nationwide protest of the movie because of its frequent use of the term "retard" and its portrayal of the mentally disabled.

More on that uninformed and misguided protest later.

Coming Soon

Tropic Thunder is a highly comprehensive satire from its very first frames, which take the form of a series of fictional pre-movie commercials and trailers.

There's Scorcher, an over-the-top series of action movies starring Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, Zoolander) in which Earth stops rotating on its axis… again and again. There's The Fatties: Fart Two, the next installment in a series of fat-suit comedies starring Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black, School of Rock) in a multiplicity of roles with flatulence jokes being ripped left and right. And there's Satan's Alley, an erotic drama starring Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man) and Tobey Maguire (winner of MTV"s Best Onscreen Kiss award). And, while you enjoy those movies, don't forget to grab a can of Booty Sweat, the energy drink with a commercial featuring Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson, 8 Mile).

All of that is done to immaculately set the stage for Tropic Thunder. It's a movie based on the Vietnam War memoir of the same name written by Four-Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, Hotel Rwanda).

The self-absorbed, self-impressed, and self-infatuated stars of those trailers are brought together in what is supposed to be the most epically awesome war adventure ever committed to the medium of celluloid.

Well, that's the goal, but when the reality is they have agents back home fussing over things like the lack of TiVo availability in their talents' posh hotel rooms and other less pressing matters, such as the fact that the director was killed by a real land mine, things go south in a hurry.

Prior to the director's demise, the cast was duped into believing they were going to effectively go "commando" and shoot the movie in a cinema verite style in order to capture more raw, gritty realism.

Unfortunately for them, the thespians find themselves in a real war zone patrolled by real mercenaries and drug runners.

The Great Mistake

Make no mistake about it. Tropic Thunder is a vicious, R-rated comedy. It lampoons Hollywood and its mysterious ways with a take-no-prisoners gusto.

Tropic Thunder
Three fish out of water.
Photo: Dreamworks

Getting back to that protest action, it revolves around another movie within this movie, one called Simple Jack and starring Tugg Speedman as a mentally disabled young man. Widely reviled as the worst movie ever made, it becomes the topic of conversation between Tugg and Kirk, who advises Tugg that his big mistake was going for the "full retard."

Citing Peter Sellers in Being There, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, each nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, Kirk observes that, while they played mentally-challenged characters, they still reeled things in with some sensibility, talent, or achievement that made them easy for audiences to enjoy and appreciate.

Simple Jack was simply a total idiot. So, while some are up in arms over Ben Stiller's movie-within-a-movie, they're also missing the joke. It's a dig at how the movie industry can be so calculated and how badly things can go when Hollywood doesn't tippy-toe around hot-button topics. The real-world reaction to this Simple Jack controversy only goes to serve the movie's point.

If a joke has to be explained, is it still a good joke? Yes. The trick of it here is that the characters involved in the discussion have so objectified their subject matter and are so detached from any real emotion, in part because they live their lives emoting for pay, that they sense no degree of crudeness or shame.

Risky Business

As for Kirk Lazarus, he's a blonde-haired, piercingly-steel-blue-eyed Australian who goes to great lengths to bring "reality" to his acting and his character creations (and he is, in turn, played by Downey, Jr., who was born in New York, NY). For Tropic Thunder, Kirk undergoes pigmentation surgery to become a black man. Surely that will offend some, but stop and think for a sec.

Tropic Thunder
Lazarus rises.
Photo: Dreamworks

What about Alec Guinness as an Indian in A Passage to India? Or, for that matter, Christian Bale, a Welshman, playing that iconic American, Batman? If the talent is there to achieve a certain sensation in a movie, how do the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate casting get defined?

All the hullabaloo aside, Tropic Thunder is a movie that serves up laugh-out-loud comedy, the kind that's so juicy it engenders more laughing out loud long after the movie ends. Relish the fact that this movie did make it through the studio system and did get made. Also savor Tom Cruise in an incredibly startling supporting role of complete and utter self-deprecation.

Yes. Actors play roles. And sometimes they make fools of themselves while jumping up and down while professing their love on national TV. Or they get embroiled in poor personal decisions that send their private lives into a sinister downward spiral.

Here, they simply cut loose and yuck it up, thoroughly aware of the ridiculous business that has afforded them the wild, lavish lifestyles most only get to dream about.

• Originally published at

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