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The problem with the (inexplicably popular) Tropic Thunder may be that Ben Stiller is just not a funny filmmaker. Not even remotely. As an actor he can play the schlemiel as well as anybody, strumming the neurotically mild-mannered chord before exploding into apoplectic snit-fits that recall the second-to-last panel of any Cathy cartoon. While predictably timed, there’s still a welcome chaos in his frenetic, flailing, there’s-a-bee-in-my-ear eruptions.

As a child of the industry, Stiller’s steeped in the technique of comedy, and it’s that not-entirely-welcome calculation that he brings to the films he directs. Although the actor Stiller throws himself into out-there comedies and the occasional drama, director Stiller takes fewer chances. So while his headcase shtick works when playing the fading action star Tugg Speedman (think Bruce Willis around the time of The Last Boy Scout), his behind-the-camera caution works to stifle the script’s cock-eyed anarchy.

cover art

Tropic Thunder

Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte

(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 13 Aug 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 19 Sep 2008 (General release); 2008)

Review [13.Aug.2008]

One of Stiller’s canniest moves with Tropic Thunder was playing the whole thing up like a real blockbuster film of exactly the kind that it is spoofing. Many comedies that try to send up a particular genre fail because without the verisimilitude of major studio backing, the joke doesn’t necessarily work. Satirizing an Apocalypse Now-type event film on a shoestring budget would be hard to pull off, to say the least.

But by splashing around some cash from a budget that was in the $100 million range, if not higher (making it one of the most expensive comedies of all time), Stiller could easily afford the kind of fireworks and hardware available to your average budget-busting war epic. That ability, combined with Stiller’s admittedly capable directorial skills, some sleek camerawork from cinematographer John Toll (recalling his work on The Thin Red Line) and the luscious Hawaii setting (no on-location Vietnam shoot for this crew, thank you very much) makes for a film that certainly looks the part, if nothing else.

It’s in that expensive look, however, that Stiller’s problem lies. Take the scene where Speedman and the more-Method-than-Brando phenom Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr., who is as good here if not better than all the hype has claimed) are screwing up a tearful “Don’t you die on me!” shot and wasting millions of dollars’ worth of expensive explosions in the background. The whole scene could have easily been played with reaction shots for just as much comedic effect, but Stiller not only incinerates a good chunk of land in a simulated napalm strike, he makes sure to lovingly capture every lick of bursting beautiful flame. Joel Silver would have been proud.

There’s nothing wrong with having your cake and eating it too. And there’s no law that says a film can’t strike sharp comedic notes while at the same time stoking one’s desire to watch stuff blow up real good. Why couldn’t you poke fun at Hollywood’s self-important myopia while at the same time playing to the back row with massive fireballs and shootouts? But when the latter takes over from the former, as it quite clearly does in the disappointing last third of Tropic Thunder, it becomes clear that the admixture of those two desires is a tricky balance, and one that Stiller never got quite right.

Some elements of Tropic Thunder would make any filmmaker proud. Downey’s performance in particular is clearly one for the ages, as can be seen in one scene that requires him to speak like an Aussie actor deep into a psychotically method portrayal of an African-American soldier who’s trying to pretend that he speaks Mandarin. The levels of accents are so thickly layered and finely calibrated that it’s hard to even comprehend what Downey is doing. Jay Baruchel has a few nice moments as the rookie actor on the set, the only one who went to training and read the script, and also the only character who survives the whole affair with a shred of dignity.

But overkill is always lurking around the corner. Take Tom Cruise’s admittedly brilliant portrayal of a maniacal studio head. To be sure, his portrayal of obscenely unctuous avarice makes even as totemic a character as Saul Rubinek’s Lee Donowitz from True Romance pale in comparison; when he tells a subordinate that “a nutless monkey could do your job,” it’s almost as chilling as it is funny. Unfortunately, Stiller takes what should have been a fine two-second joke, where Cruise dances to his hip-hop ringtone, and not only plays it well past its expiration, but wrings it out yet again during the closing credits.

Even more over-the-top and less amusing are the Golden Triangle drug smugglers that the actors unwittingly cross paths with, thinking that they’re just extras. Besides giving the filmmakers a good excuse to blow up several more large patches of jungle and shoot off a few thousand rounds of ammunition for the final showdown, it also lets them indulge in some fairly broad stereotyping. While Tropic Thunder certainly wants the audience to feel a sense of comeuppance at watching these pampered thespians get what’s coming to them, delivering it by way of this band of brutish Asians that could have jumped out of some imperialistic Rudyard Kipling tale might have been too high a cost to pay.

The reason for all Tropic Thunder’s broad strokes, though, isn’t surprising. It’s not as though Stiller went off into the jungle with a clutch of fine actors and a lacerating script to make some guerrilla comedy; in fact, that pretense is skewered pretty handily when the film-within-the-film’s director gets himself killed doing just that. Stiller had a $100 million budget to justify, after all, and little could be left to chance. Say what you will about Apocalypse Now and Platoon, the two films that Tropic Thunder primarily plays off of, but were not so “safe”.

Chris Barsanti is an habitual scrivener on books and film for the lucky readers of PopMatters, Film Journal International, Film Racket, and Publishers Weekly, and has also been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Millions, The Barnes and Noble Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and New York Film Critics Online. His books include Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide to the Movies You Need to Know, the Eyes Wide Open annual film guide series, and The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from 'Alien' to 'Zardoz'. His writings can be found here.

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