Once upon a time — 1992 to be exact — Ben Stiller was really funny. It was back when he had a sketch comedy show on FOX, which won an Emmy for writing even though it got axed before its first season ended. Six years later, There's Something About Mary came along and, against all odds, Stiller became a comic leading man. For nearly a decade, he's raked in millions, playing the same unfunny role over and over again. Whether it's Meet the Parents, Duplex, Along Came Polly, Envy or Night at the Museum, Stiller's Jew-shmoe persona is as disposable as it is inoffensive. It wasn't until Zoolander, his 2001 stab at comic auteurship, that he finally attempted to create an original comedy feature. And it wasn't all that funny.
Tropic Thunder is Stiller's attempt to grab back some of the comic inspiration of his early cheeky years, taking potshots at actors, sending up action flicks and mercilessly lampooning Hollywood in general. The movie's jokes come in colors and flavors — from outrageously crude to wildly stupid to indescribably clever. While the plotting is episodic and sharply uneven, Stiller delivers enough humor to make up for ... well, at least Meet the Fockers.
Stiller plays solipsistic, semiliterate action movie star Tugg Speedman, who, after his career began to fizzle, disastrously attempted to branch out into drama with Simple Jack, an aggressively retarded version of Forrest Gump. Desperate for a comeback, he signs on with a pair of similarly vapid A-listers — heroin-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and intense method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Oscar-winning Aussie (Russell Crowe anyone?) — to star in a Vietnam epic a la Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Portnoy, known for his flatulent comedies The Fatties (think Eddie Murphy's The Krumps), is looking to broaden his box-office appeal while Lazarus undergoes radical pigmentation surgery to literally turn him into his black character. That's right; Downey Jr. spends most of the film in blackface.
When Tropic Thunder's limey director (Steve Coogan) gets the idea to move his diva-like actors into the jungle to shoot the movie guerrilla-style, they unwittingly run afoul of local drug runners. Soon the fake firefights become real and Speedman is the last to understand that they're no longer shooting a movie.
While the plot sounds straightforward enough, Stiller expands the target range to include egomaniacal producers, sycophantic assistants, oily talent agents, freshman actors and weirdo crewmembers in an attempt to string together his jokes. It's a bumpy approach, paying off with a boffo opening and over-the-top finale but losing its way in the film's uneventful center. While there are enough gut-busters sprinkled throughout, the comedy feels bloated and, at times, self-conscious. Stiller never fully commits to the world he's created or the film's darker shadings, injecting a sketch comedy sensibility to his character that undermines his more savage jokes. It's akin to delivering a wickedly hilarious insult then tempering it with a "just kidding." The movie's got balls ... just not very big ones.
While Tropic Thunder's cast is uniformly good — Jack Black is less annoying than he's been in years — it's Downy Jr. who stands out. Never betraying for a moment that he's in a comedy, his newly "black" Lazarus is a brilliantly irreverent creation. If for no other reason, Stiller deserves kudos for daring to bring a blackface joke to the party and getting away with it. By countering Lazarus's absurd persona with Brandon T. Jackson's rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (say it aloud), he smartly turns a potentially offensive concept into the bit that keeps on delivering.
Nearly as good are Matthew McConaughey (stepping in for depressed Owen Wilson) as Speedman's super smarmy agent and Tom Cruise as hairy, fat, balding studio boss Les Grossman. Though he's only in a handful of scenes, Cruise completely dominates as a hilariously profane monstrosity, swearing up a storm and bullying everyone in sight. His ability to compliment and insult assistant Bill Hader in the same sentence is viciously amusing and his gangsta dance is worth the price of admission alone.
While Tropic Thunder may not achieve the comic greatness it seems to think it has, Stiller's cutting critiques of Hollywood — watch for his incredible explanation for why Rain Man and Forrest Gump won best acting Oscars but I Am Sam didn't — and willingness to test the limits of a joke earn him the self-respect he lost with The Heartbreak Kid.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].