Ben Stiller, the perennially unfunny ape nerd of comedy, has here accomplished three stupendous feats: Van Damme muscles, his first funny movie since 2001’s Zoolander, and his first brilliant movie ever unless you’re of the eight year age bracket that swooned over Reality Bites (guilty as charged).
Tropic Thunder kicks off with the most lazy-brilliant character development I’ve ever seen; three fake trailers and one fake commercial introducing the flick’s four stars. Rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), bracketed by babes in booty shorts, shills snacks called Booty Sweat and Busta Nut bars. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) toots his way through The Fatties: Fart 2 in a skit that should have Eddie Murphy summoning his lawyers to buy the rights. Serious Actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) flouts his five Oscar award-winning cops in some gilded piffle about a gay monk, scored to Enlgma’s Sadness Part II. And Stiller himself shows off his brand new roid rage as Tugg Speedman, inarticulate action hero.
The gang’s gathered in Vietnam to shoot a heavyweight war picture about the real life rescue of amputee veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) back in 1969. First time director Damien Cockburn (Brit comic Steve Coogan) is near suicidal: the production’s five days in and a month behind schedule. Each is out to prove themselves, though the bar’s higher for some than others. Black just wants one non-flatulent role; Stiller’s trying to rebound his career from his disastrous Academy Award pandering yarn about a mentally handicapped farm boy; Downey Jr.—infamously both within the movie and in truth—has soaked up skin dye and episodes of The Jeffersons to transform himself into a straight-talking Southern black man.
This is Downey Jr.’s summer. Having conquered superheroes in the most surprising turn since Michael Keaton slung on a cape, here he decimates his scant competition in a fearless role that dares the audience to exclaim, “That Chaplin makes a great black guy!” and then stop and ask themselves what that means. As an Australian actor channeling Morgan Freeman, Downey Jr. is unblinking, never once slipping out of his character’s character. And as an Australian actor, Stiller and co-writers Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux have him take punches from an offended Alpa Chino who spits Down Under bigotry at him like “Crocodile Dundee.”
The script kicks off with several bold twists and outrageous characters. By the time it settles down into a predictable rhythm, the momentum is carried by its aggressively maverick humor that’s gonzo one second and demonic the next. Stiller’s cut back on the mugging—thank god—while newcomers Jackson and Jay Baruchel, who is the war flick’s standard doomed ingénue, hold their own as best they can against Downey Jr. Black is adequate in a yet another role that asks him to parody himself back when he was actually funny. The real surprise is Tom Cruise as the film-within-the-film’s producer. From the ashes of his career flame out, he’s been reborn as a character actor and like Alec Baldwin before him, he delights in swaddling himself in fat suits and screaming like a banshee. At his most wicked, Cruise cranks up T-Pain and gets low—a leering, ghastly, self-deluded millionaire acting the fool. It’s the part he was made to play.