Tropic Thunder introduces its main characters through fake trailers for the entertainment properties that made them famous: Tugg Speedman (director, co-producer and co-writer Ben Stiller) has been muscling his way through a lobotomized franchise of apocalyptic action-flicks; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is an Australian Oscar-magnet method actor much adored for disappearing into his own bathos; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) does a fourth-rate Eddie Murphy bit with fat suits and flatulence; and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) hocks “Booty Sweat” energy drinks through his own chart-topping hip-hop anthem, “I Love Tha Pussy.”
These swift bits are of course clever and funny and craftily done. And perchance a little risky, too, for they plant the seed of a notion, before the movie at hand has even officially begun, that maybe Tropic Thunder itself might have been better realized merely as one of these fake trailers, or its own real one: a concept best articulated as a glorified highlight reel, without even the pretense of dramatic structure or narrative coherence.
But indeed it’s a full-length movie, with a story of sorts (concocted by Stiller with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen), which goes like this: The actors are together on the set of, yes, Tropic Thunder, a megabudget action epic of the Vietnam War, with Speedman reaching for respectability in the role of the now-grizzled veteran (Nick Nolte) on whose best-selling memoir the movie is based; Lazarus in cosmetically abetted blackface and loving it, to Chino’s increasing chagrin; and Portnoy junking up on heroin.
Their ego-clashing, budget-sucking antics are more than too much for their rookie English milquetoast director (Steve Coogan) to handle, and some painful pressure from his vulgarly volcanic studio chief (Tom Cruise) doesn’t exactly help. Solution? As Nolte’s war guru suggests to the floundering filmmaker, “You must put these boys in the shit.” Not a bad idea, sketch-comedy-wise; and so, deep into the real jungle they go, without any creature comforts — or, indeed, any members of the crew to advise them that the heavily armed drug cartel whose path they cross is not actually in the script.
Well, each man gets his share of shtick, and its quality varies. The best of the business by far — for its funniness and surprise, its layers of awareness and charm — is Downey’s. Among these other cartoon characters, he’s a one-man graphic novel. Overall and maybe inevitably, Tropic Thunder is uneven, and ultimately it’s disposable, but what smug fun there is to be had from the idea that the whole overblown enterprise might be justified by this one formerly uninsurable actor’s performance alone.
So yes, Stiller deserves some of the congratulations he wants for his political incorrectness, for not being afraid to bite the Hollywood hand that feeds him, and for recognizing yet also gamely indulging the absurdity of it all — including a shout out to the original Star Trek that gleefully goes a degree further than most viewers might realize.
Matthew McConaughey is at a disadvantage in his perfunctory part (from which Owen Wilson dropped out) as Tugg Speedman’s agent, whereas Danny McBride, the true comic maestro of Pineapple Express, shines again here as a pyro-maniacal, just-happy-to-be-here special effects guy. (“Tropic Thunder: Kinda like my Catcher in the Rye,” he says of the original book.)
As for Cruise’s bald-white-dude victory dance at the end, well, there’s really only one way for you to find out whether that’s worth waiting for.