If you think the funniest thing in the world would be for Tom Cruise to dance to hip-hop music while being fitted with silly looking prosthetic arms, boy have I got the movie for you. No doubt, my friend, that you were also the person who succeeded in liking those Queen Latifah and Eugene Levy vehicles from the late 90s and early 2000s. Get ready for even more of the same type of shtick in director Ben Stiller’s bombastic, hyper-violent and satirical portrait of war films in his newest opus, Tropic Thunder.
The plotline revolves around English director Damien Cockburn’s (Steve Coogan) attempt to adapt a Vietnam veteran’s ludicrously written autobiography into the most explosion laden, gut spewing, blood spurting movie ever made about the topic. To make the film a blockbuster, Cockburn and movie mogul Les Grossman (Cruise) cast the biggest names in Hollywood – or at least the most pampered and idiotic – to headline the film. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Academy Award winner Kirk Lazarus, who, with the help of bad scriptwriting, undergoes pigment surgery to look African-American. Jeff Portnoy, played by the ever gregarious Jack Black, is a raunchy comedian playing in his first serious role, while Kevin Sandusky, played by Jay Baruchel, is getting his first role in general. Ben Stiller, the ringleader of the four, is an action hero hell bent on bringing home an Oscar. Since collectively assembled they have the worst chemistry ever, Cockburn decides to toughen them up by leaving them in the most dangerous part of the country in hopes of shedding their prima donna personalities. This, of course, also goes wrong, and drug traffickers end up shooting at the inept wild bunch.
During our heroes misadventures, every conceivable bad joke is wrung dry. Much like other bad comedies, we are exposed to expendable celebrity cameos reminiscent of the 2005 flop Be Cool. We get to see Lance Bass, Tyra Banks, and Jon Voight get propped up like bowling pins before they’re finally cracked over by Stiller’s unfunny antics. In fact, almost every minute of the two hour film is filled with Stiller and company continuously bickering, acting contemptible, and mean mugging like John Wayne. Every now and again, when we’re really lucky, we hear lines such as “mother nature just pissed herself, dude!” Obviously a lot of clever work went into this dialogue.
A lot of this bad humor, none of it venial or capable of consideration, is exhausted by Stiller’s tactless scriptwriting. Jack Black’s character is a cokehead who sweats profusely and eats a bat’s head. Is this funny? Probably not. And if Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface isn’t offensive, it’s certainly not funny either, which makes the joke completely unnecessary altogether. This type of over the top material only climbs to the summit in order to pitfall straight back down. Take for instance a scene in which Ben Stiller stuffs a rifle into a decapitated man’s head, jiggles the gun around until entrails fall from the neck, and then licks them with his tongue. This is a mean spirited gag that provokes malaise and silence from its disgusted audience.
I can’t think of a film that comes off more pedestrian for trying so hard. Pineapple Express, a film that also went over the top, was funny because of its acknowledgement of how to blend wit with superfluous action. Tropic Thunder, despite its high budget and star power, fails to see that a good comedy deserves not only a set-up, but also a punch line.
If I have to quote a line from this movie, and most reluctantly I will, I would take dialogue from a scene where Downey, Jr. tells Stiller about his last acting performance; a performance where he played a handicapped person.
“Never go full retard,” Downey, Jr says. “People never like full retard.”
This film would do well to follow its own advice.