The other day I had the interesting experience of seeing a couple fleeing from Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder in some degree of shocked agitation after no more than exposure to the movie’s first 60 seconds. Setting aside the obvious questions of why people cannot read movie ratings (“Rated R for pervasive language, including sexual references, violent content and drug material”) and insist on going to films they obviously know nothing about, I have to say that a picture that can provoke that kind of response must be doing something right. And judging by the fact that Stiller’s film is the one that finally unseated The Dark Knight as the number-one movie in the country, it seems that it is.
Unconscionably vulgar, raunchy, foulmouthed and way over-the-top, Tropic Thunder launches an almost relentless satirical attack on Hollywood, the Oscar-voting mind-set, good taste and political correctness—and emerges the winner in the resulting best-two-falls-out-of-three grudge match. The film sets out to be deliberately provocative, and it more than succeeds in this mission. To start, Robert Downey Jr. plays an Australian method actor (“I don’t step out of character until I do the DVD commentary”) who insists on playing the role of a black character in state-of-the-art blackface. Strangely, this bout of courting controversy resulted in a mere ripple in public opinion, while another aspect of Tropic Thunder opened an entirely different can of worms.
That aspect—actors who make a shameless Oscar bid by playing mentally challenged characters—came under heavy fire for making fun of the mentally challenged. Never mind that the film is making fun of the whole insensitive business of truly exploiting the mentally challenged by using them as Oscar bait to appeal to the shallowness of Academy voters. There was such an outcry (complete with the word “boycott” attached) that Paramount set up a phone number for viewers to call to register their complaints in the matter. Considering the film’s equal-opportunity-offender status, it would seem that they might also have set up hotlines for blacks, Jews, Asians, gays, homophobic rappers, animal-rights activists, agents and armchair warriors in the bargain. Nobody gets out of this unscathed, but it’s all ultimately directed at the entertainment industry. In other words, it’s a movie that opens fire on the very people who made it.
Apart from its setup, Tropic Thunder is a hard film to discuss in any depth without giving too much away. In essence, it’s the tale of what happens when a big-budget war movie goes out of control on location (think Apocalypse Now). With his back to the wall, the director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), follows the advice of the amputee war hero (Nick Nolte) on whose memoirs the film is based and dumps his stars in the jungle to play it for real (with hundreds of concealed cameras and special effects at the ready). Everything that can go wrong with this loopy notion does—especially for the director—and gets worse when drug dealers mistake the actors for real soldiers. The whole film works on the deceptively simple notion that all the stars—and the writer—harbor deep secrets (some deeper than others) that reveal themselves under pressure. (It’s kind of like Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with flying viscera, gross-out humor and rampaging bad taste.)
For such a deliberately outrageous film, there are moments of surprising subtlety within its confines that result in some of the funniest moments (note the inherent truthfulness of the scene where Downey’s character explains to Stiller’s character why his Oscar bid with Simple Jack failed). More often than not, however, it’s a film that delights in shocking the audience by crossing seemingly uncrossable boundaries with unabashed glee. Some of it doesn’t really work (though if you put it up against every other flat-out comedy this year, it feels like genius), but most of it does—or, I should say, most of it does unless you’re easily offended and take things a little too seriously.
Despite what you’ve undoubtedly heard about the Tom Cruise cameo (it’s a lot more than a cameo and that’s not exactly in its favor all the time), this picture, like Iron Man, is Robert Downey Jr.‘s film. Everyone is good in the film, but Downey flirts with greatness here—and he even reaches it on several occasions. What could have been nothing but bad-taste shtick turns into a genuine characterization. He’s not only “a dude playin’ a dude who’s disguised as another dude,” he’s a character who truly doesn’t know who he is, and is as much real as funny. The movie has got some imperfections (someone get Stiller a better record collection, please), but Downey certainly isn’t one of them. And when you mix Downey’s performance with a pretty savvy take-no-prisoners satire, the result is comedy of note. Rated R for pervasive language, including sexual references, violent content and drug material.