Barely a second passes before Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder starts getting vaguely offensive.
“I love the pussy!” shouts the bling-sporting rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), his face placed between two gyrating female backsides, all in a flashy ad for his Booty Sweat soft drink and Bust-A-Nut energy bars. The announcer shouts the drink’s slogan (“Pop an Ass Open!”), and with that, Tropic Thunder launches into a multi-tiered showbiz satire that’s as outrageous as it is envelope-pushing.
The premise is (somewhat) simple: reputable stage director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is to make a high-budget film adaptation of the book “Tropic Thunder” by handless Vietnam war vet “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). For it, studio head Les Grossman (a never-funnier Tom Cruise) has hired a cavalcade of stars, ranging from washed-up action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) to newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) to heroin-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) to five-time Academy Award-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.).
After the first week of shooting falls apart in disastrous fashion (highlighted by special effects madman Cody’s [Danny McBride] four million dollar explosion failing to even get filmed), Tayback convinces Cockburn to take his core cast into the jungles of Vietnam with hidden cameras everywhere, shooting the whole thing guerilla style. Eager to prove himself as a force of genuine intimidation, Cockburn agrees and soon sets this “genius” plan into motion.
Much of Tropic Thunder‘s humor stems from the fact that the actors, when faced by actual drug-peddling revolutionaries in ‘Nam, often fail to realize that they are in real danger, believing instead that they are actually being filmed. Falling for this ploy most often is Speedman, who, after going “full retard” in his Oscar-bait drama “Simple Jack”, wants to prove himself a “serious” actor, a feat that’s becoming increasingly difficult to do when standing next to Lazarus, who—due to his absolute devotion to his roles—has dyed his skin black in order to play Lincoln Osiris, “Tropic Thunder”‘s African-American sergeant. When Speedman asks if Lazarus ever drops character, Lazarus scoffs and (in character) replies “Man, I don’t drop character ‘til I’ve done the DVD commentary.”
Now, the joke gets meta.
In the actual DVD commentary for Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr. does not drop character. He’s still Lincoln Osiris, and—most critically—he’s still incredibly funny. Though Stiller (in director mode) notes many of the challenges he had in filming the movie (and Jack Black—inexplicably—eats a hamburger and fries through a good portion of it), Downey is more than happy to riff on the movie itself, Black’s tardiness to the commentary recording session, and how utterly ridiculous Stiller’s satire is (an additionally commentary track with much of the behind-the-scenes crew is also used). Downey has an absolute ball with the proceedings, and though Stiller and Black try and keep up, it’s Downey’s show from the get-go, his devotion to the joke proving to be absolutely beyond words.
Yet the Tropic Thunder DVD does not stop its self-referential hi-jinks there. Included is a multi-part featurette entitled “Rain of Madness”, a knowing homage/parody of the 1991 documentary Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, which detailed the numerous challenges involved in filming the seminal war flick Apocalypse Now. In it, filmmaker Jan Jurgen (Thunder co-writer Justin Theroux) interviews the cast and crew of the “Tropic Thunder” movie, focusing primarily on director Cockburn as he tries to comprehend the enormity of his task at hand.
In truth, “Rain of Madness” really gives the actors and the production team ample opportunity to show off, displaying the numerous posters of fake movies the “actors” were in (Jeff Portnoy’s “Fart Club”), Cockburn’s total cluelessness as a director (Coogan goes into the woods to find the tree that Tayback lost his hands at, declares that he’s feeling a powerful energy from said tree, and then is told by his crew that it’s the wrong tree—twice), and Lazarus’ creepy devotion to his character.
Osiris’ real remaining family is flown in to Vietnam so that Lazarus can get to know them better, even though his sanity is obviously slipping (Downey hides under a bush at one point, tossing out bits of hot dogs in order to entice intruders; another time he’s found performing an exorcism on a family member in a hotel shower). The DVD’s menus feature dramatic footage of the actual “Thunder” movie with overblown orchestral music playing over it, playfully showing that this “fake movie” is, in fact, absolutely full of itself.
Unfortunately, not all of the DVD’s features maintain this winking sense of self-importance. Most of the featurettes (“Designing the Thunder”, “Before the Thunder”, etc.) are per-usual behind-the-scenes documentaries that give some insight into Stiller’s film ... but not too much (the only worthwhile excursion being the MTV Movie Awards segment for the movie’s promotion starring Stiller, Black, and Downey—which is an absolute riot). The deleted/extended scenes are by far the biggest let down, however, as they prove to be dry, unfunny, and wisely excised from the actual film itself.
It’s a real shame too, as the “Rain of Madness” docs, Downey’s commentary, the actual movie’s faux-trailers give Tropic Thunder something that most comedies never even dream of: it creates its own alternate universe that’s filled with fake films, fake stars, fake products, and fake ads—all of which are ripe for lampooning, most of it carried off rather successfully.
In the face of the “retard” criticism that the real Tropic Thunder faced prior to its opening, Stiller defended it simply: Tropic Thunder isn’t having a go at a serious mental condition—it’s mocking the way that such serious ailments are treated in the entertainment community, many of these maladies seized on by actors for Oscar-bait and nothing more. With that said, Tropic Thunder is a fun, occasionally brilliant satire of these Hollywood tropes that actually retains its comic punch after multiple viewings.
Yes, Thunder is borderline offensive, its fantastic DVD release is weighed down by some spotty featurettes, and the “extended edition” adds very little worthwhile footage—but, ultimately, you will be hard pressed to find a more entertaining comedy this year. Kirk Lazarus would be proud.