Ben Stiller has not been funny to me. Not since "There's Something About Mary" and "Meet the Parents" has he made me laugh-the latter failing in it's enormous potential. Shortly thereafter, he was in every other comedy, the bad ("Along Came Polly") and the mediocre ("Starsky & Hutch") and wore me out: I was through with him.
And yet, like most people, Stiller has earned a second chance with "Tropic Thunder."
A labor of love lingering in development, the Stiller-written, directed and starring comedy shows that he's still got another funny bone in his body.
Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is the top paid and box office actor ever. His series of world-overrun-by-volcanoes films "Scorcher" made him an international sensation. However, his attempt at serious acting work failed in "Simple Jack," playing a mentally handicapped farmhand who could speak to animals. A box office and critical disaster, Speedman looks to recover from ridicule with another meaty role.
Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is known for one thing: playing every member of an overweight family who do nothing but sit around the dinner table exuding their flatulent talents. Like Speedman, Portnoy wants to show he can act to offset being mocked and jeered for his innate talent to show no true talent at all.
Kirk Lazarus is a five-time Academy Award winning Australian actor known for his ability to disappear into roles and remain in character for the duration of filming, on and off-camera. He's the Method actor incarnate. "I don't break character until the DVD commentary," he says. SO committed is he to his next role-an African-American drill sergeant-that he has his skin color changed via cosmetic surgery to do nothing but become the character.
The three actors join rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor desperate for a big break, for the adaptation of the Vietnam memoirs of veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte).
During filming, however, Tayback and director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) grow tired of their prima donna cast, as well as the big shot film executive back in the states (an extended cameo that damn-near steals the show). With the aid of explosives technician Cody (Danny McBride), the filmmakers drop their cast into the deep, untamed jungles, convincing them that hidden cameras will capture everything, to give a more authentic, realistic and guerilla filmmaking feel.
The problem is, there are heroin producers who think otherwise: they are American invaders. Speedman is kidnapped and forced to relive his worst memories-"Simple Jack," of course-while his cast mates attempt to rescue him.
Oh, and they all think they're still filming a movie.
"Tropic Thunder" is filled with many Hollywood-lampooning displays of sight gags and witty dialogue. It falls short of a complete send-up of the entire American filmmaking community but still enjoys enough laughs at Hollywood's expense.
Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen deliver on a grand scope, with everyone as targets. Stiller may not be believable as Schwarzenegger, but he comes looking the part of one, physically and mentally, so a pass can be given. Black is a send-up of comic actor Eddie Murphy and his recent failure at being one of the "Dreamgirls." I am no big fan of Black, but he walks the line of manic brilliance and obsessive overexertion adequately.
Downey is the most impressive of the group, having fun satirizing the lengths actors go for vanity-driven performances rather than embodiment over looks-all the while balancing it with a healthy dose of self-mockery to avoid racial undertones. Nearly unrecognizable, disappearing into the role like his character does, Downey masks his voice, too, while quoting the theme song to "The Jeffersons," spoofing how actors themselves use clichés, stereotypes and pop culture rifts as a basis for an "authentic" performance. Downey's performance is as great a supporting comic performance as Madeline Kahn in "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" or Kevin Kline's Oscar-winning work in "A Fish Called Wanda."
In addition to Downey, Stiller lets those actors who feel that playing a character with disabilities doesn't guarantee fame, critical acclaim and truck loads of awards. A hilarious, albeit un-PC, scene involves Lazurus criticizing Speedman for going too far with his "Simple Jack" performance, referencing the history of actors who played those with mental handicaps. Downey utters adjectives not directed to Stiller's character but to those who think playing a dummy means anything, an extremely funny-cause-it's-true moment.
"Tropic Thunder" leaves no battle stone unturned; "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now"-they are all there. However, more than just a spoof of war movies but of the Hollywood system of things, form the suits that provide the money to the actors who provide the "talent." And be sure to arrive on-time to the film: faux trailers will help set-up the characters and the movie's premise more than I ever will.
While not as much of a skewering of the film industry as I had hoped, Stiller still brings plenty of stuff to roast.
And I love the smell of roasted Hollywood in the morning.