Satire is one of the most difficult comedic genres in all of cinema. Writers looking to lampoon the vices, follies and excesses of humanity must make sure that their brand of exaggerated burlesque hits its mark.
Tropic Thunder is a film that looks to spoof Hollywood and its hypocrisies but winds up on both sides of that satirical gambit. The film stars Ben Stiller as Tugg Speedman, a pompous Hollywood action star making a war film set in Vietnam. Speedman’s co-stars are a comedy actor, (Jack Black), a soft drink touting rapper, (Brandon T. Jackson) and an Australian actor (Robert Downey Jr.) so dedicated to method action that he undergoes an operation to alter his pigmentation to play the platoon’s African-American sergeant.
The film is behind schedule and over budget. Their director, Damien Cockburn, (Steve Coogan) is pressured by his producer to get the film made or else. Tom Cruise has gotten a great deal of publicity for playing the film’s pudgy, gold chain sporting, Jewish producer who handles every business interaction by berating everyone he encounters. To me, that got old in a hurry.
Considering the problems the director is having working with the prima donna cast, the author of the novel the movie is based on (Nick Nolte) suggests shipping them unbeknownst to Vietnam. That way, the writer insists, their survival instincts will translate into more realistic performances.
This is a very good idea for a satire. It presents the film with many opportunities to parody their inflated egos while in a foreign land. But after the film gets off to a riotous start, it settles into a “men lost in the woods” plot. Little happens that is actually funny, except for Downey, who is great. Given a performance that could easily have been viewed as racist, he rises to the occasion, more so mocking the way whites view black vernacular than mocking the vernacular itself. Downey’s the only one that seems to know he’s in a satiric film.
Nevertheless, the movie fails to follow his lead and the film loses its way. It becomes less about the prima donna actors and more about trying to fit a logical plot where one was not needed. As Tropic Thunder’s director, Stiller should have pulled back the reigns and let the actors personalities and quirks create the opportunities for satire. Scenes involving Stiller’s capture by Vietnam rebels fail because they seem to be more about furthering the plot than representing a realistic scenario of actors alone in the swamps. What happens when actors are deprived of their hair and make-up for multiple days? What happens when their sense of importance is made moot by outsiders who don’t care about their superstar status? What type of tabloid rumors would be created if a cast of actors go missing? All ideas that could have been explored, but were not, instead choosing to take the easy way to a laugh (Tom Cruise dancing to hip-hop, for example). Those few jokes grow old fast.
Another problem: its finale is as violent as any action movie made in the last several years. But without the sense of comic timing or apparent irony, it plays like a simple action sequence in a Hollywood film itself rather than an indictment of the “Hollywood machine”.
Tropic Thunder was written by Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen and Stiller. They show flashes that they were on the right track, but eventually lose control of their material, creating a film that can only be viewed as an “Intelligence Failure.”