Here we go again. Again.
— Scorcher (Tugg Speedman)
“We are no longer actors in a movie,” announces Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), “We are five men in a helicopter!” Even as he says it, the director looks unconvinced. These are not men, and he knows it. They are actors.
The camera pans the faces of the stars, including Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who look equally unconvinced. Ah well, Damien sighs once they’re dropped off into the Southeast Asian jungle, they will shoot this Hollywood action flick “guerrilla-style.” They will turn around a current disaster in the making, Tropic Thunder (“a month behind schedule just five days into production,” according to Access Hollywood), they will live off the land, and they will make a real movie. The actors hold up their fake guns over their fake-helmeted heads, and they raise their voices in agreement. Sort of.
This is actually the second beginning of Stiller’s rambunctious, bloody, and often tedious new comedy, also called Tropic Thunder. The first had Damien surrounded by crewmembers with clipboards and headsets, expensive cameras on cranes, stunt men shooting and falling, a helicopter providing a noisy backdrop. In that first scene, Tugg was playing the heroic Tayback, his hands shot off, his future dire, and Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, played by Kirk, was urging him to press on: “Ain’t nothin’ but a thing.”
Indeed. As the camera closes in on Kirk’s tear-streaked face, Tugg stops the action. Damien looks exasperated as his star begins to ponder the details: “If I’m crying,” he asks, “should Osiris be crying too?” It’s a question that, if not especially compelling, characterizes the problems on Damien’s set: the actors are prima donnas, he complains, competitive and childish. Damien pays the price for his lack of control: during a video call from the fat-and-balding producer, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), he’s loudly rebuked. Les goes so far as to have a key grip hit him, “really fucking hard,” to encourage Damien to regain control.
This manly display by proxy sums up Tropic Thunder‘s primary joke. It means to skewer the movie industry by taking aim at its most precious fiction, that what it does matters. This is, of course, related to the fiction that those doing it are real men, as opposed to, say, gross men, or girly men or — according to the movie-within-a-movie’s consultant, grumpy Vietnam War veteran John Tayback (Nick Nolte) — “pansy-ass actors.” It’s his memoir providing the basis for the script, so when he holds up one of his hand-replacement hooks to make a suggestion, Les listens. They’ll lose the contracted luxuries, go in to the jungle (“where a man’s worth is measured”) and not only complete the production, but also become real men.
They will also run smack into catastrophe, mostly in the form of a brutal 12-year-old drug lord, Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo) — not exactly a man, either, but a plot-pushing stereotype. That plot involves Tugg’s capture by Tran’s thugs and Kirk/Osiris’ efforts to rescue him. it also involves their continued competition, as each is differently immersed in his role: Tugg is forced by his captors to reenact their favorite movie, Simple Jack, in which he once starred as a “retard.” They fashion for him a wig of grasses and burlap overalls, and mouth the words with him as they watch, beating him when he makes a mistake.
For Tugg, the adoration and abuse provide a faux revelation: viewers invest in his work. Even as he learns this seeming lesson, though, you know it’s silly. These particular viewers — violent, non-English-speaking others all — love a terrible piece of work. Back in the world, his effort to be “taken seriously” was a flop.
Tugg isn’t the only ersatz lesson-learner in Tropic Thunder. Egomaniacal comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is also supposed to come to terms with his damage. Star of a franchise in which he plays every member of the farting “Fatties” family, Jeff’s also a big-time drug addict, the mere thought of piles of heroin at Tran’s camp sending him into red-faced spasms. Reduced to a subplot that’s even less interesting than it sounds, Jeff is mostly on board so Black can contort his face and flop his body the way he usually does.
At least Jeff doesn’t have to provide coherence, which is the unhappy assignment for newbie actor Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who might best be described as Tropic Thunder‘s designated driver. The only actor of the bunch who attended their training camp, Sandusky knows how to read a map and worries about doing the right thing, even as he’s following along after the big boys, still imagining they have Great Acting Wisdom to share.
Chief among his idols is the award-winning, neo-Methody, completely self-loving Kirk, lately lauded for his role as a monk with a crush on another monk (Tobey Maguire). To play Osiris, Kirk has had his complexion surgically altered and spent long months learning how to “talk black.” (“I don’t read the script, the script reads me,” he explains, soliciting the appropriate response from Tugg: “I don’t even know what that means.”) So deeply engrossed is Kirk in Osiris, that even when he and his fellow actors discover they are not being filmed, he stays in character. Thus he conjures a Rambo-like scheme to enter Tran’s village — with fake guns.
So you’re assured the movie knows Kirk’s blackface is offensive, it includes an actual black actor, a rapper with a business plan (he’s always hawking his energy drink, “Booty Sweat”) and dreams of movie stardom. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) knows how he’s real and unreal, and perpetual code-switching doesn’t cause him angst, the way it does for the white performers. This means he has little patience for Kirk/Osiris’ antics, much less his speechifying about race relations. When he starts reciting the theme from The Jeffersons and Alpa Chino calls him out, Kirk/Osiris defends himself: “Just because it’s a theme song don’t make it not true.”
He might have a point, especially in the context Tropic Thunder establishes. If the relationship between truth and fiction is so warped, even impossible to parse, then how to “measure” the worth or even the definition of a man? The movie, much like the movie-within-the-movie, is resolutely un-insightful. It tells you what you already know: the industry is corrupt, the men in it (and here they are all men, especially fond of using language associated with men) are simultaneously insecure and narcissistic, the product is banal. It tells you that race and masculinity and class identity issues make men in this business mean and juvenile. And then it tells you again.