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Movie Review: Tropic Thunder

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It seems like the age of the cheap comedy is over. Now it seems it’s all about spending as much money as you can and hoping to achieve the laughs just the same. Tropic Thunder is the latest example of this; a film with a peculiar mix of satire, about Hollywood and the like, and action set-pieces. The film follows a group of actors while they are working on a war movie who somehow end up in an actual war-zone and are forced to become the real soldiers as they have been portraying.  It works, for the most part, as a comedy, but it goes a bit too far with the action for my liking. 

It’s unfortunate when there is a section of time in the film calendar where a few of the same types of movies get released close to one another. In this case it’s comedies Step Brothers, Pineapple Express and, of course, Tropic Thunder. Step Brothers was pretty funny and Pineapple Express is probably the funniest film I’ve seen all year and thus when going from that to Tropic Thunder, this seemed a little lacking in the laughs department. Now don’t get me wrong I did laugh during Tropic Thunder but the laughs come intermittently throughout instead of constantly as they should. Sometimes you feel like you’re supposed to laugh but it just doesn’t hit you in the way it should or you are so bewildered by all the fancy location shots and explosions that you fail to notice the jokes. It just doesn’t work when it tries to be both a comedy and action picture, despite the latter being essential to the storyline.

When the film plays to it’s strengths it’s a joy to watch. When it concentrates on the biting satire I admired it greatly; it’s a parody of movie-making today, particularly movie-making in Hollywood. The film is preceded by fake trailers (I’m guessing they saw Grindhouse) which act as introductions to Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman (The action guy), Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy (The fart-joke comedian), and Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus (The Academy Award-winning method actor guy). The latter steals the show with one joke in particular of him dying his skin to play a black guy in the movie they're all currently filming. It’s a bold move, especially for a mainstream comedy like this, but one which Downey Jr. plays just perfectly, keeping it on the right side of the fence. Anyone who has been a movie fan for any length of time will laugh at the clichéd characters that the three leads play.

There’s also some quality supporting work from the likes of Steve Coogan as the director of the movie, Mathew McConaughey as Stiller’s agent and an unrecognisable Tom Cruise as a studio boss (a role which is sure to redeem him in the minds of the general public after his real life antics). The only person I have a complaint about is Nick Nolte as the guy who is the inspiration for the plot of the film within the film. He’s got this far too serious, gruff thing going on (which he has in everything come to think of it). He just plays it far too straight and thus he sticks out like a sore thumb. It almost felt like he was in a completely different movie most of the time.

Stiller clearly believed in this project acting as director, actor, producer, and co-writer on the film.  He clearly knows the ins-and-outs of the Hollywood system or else we would never have gotten quite such sharp satire. There was a lot of controversy around Tropic Thunder, not just because of Downey Jr.’s risky appearance, but also because of one of the movies Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is supposed to have starred in called Simple Jack. It’s about a retarded man and there were groups that were picketing the film because of this detail.  But they are missing the point; the point of the gag isn’t to make a full of mentally handicapped people it’s about how actors choose to play these types of characters and go so far in preparing for the roles just to get Award recognition (think Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Sean Penn in I Am Sam, to name but a few).

So my problems with Tropic Thunder don’t really stem from the comedy side of things per se (although, as I mentioned, it isn’t funny enough as a whole) but rather the action aspects. I know that’s part of the story, but the way they go about showing the action that goes down is so over-the-top that it surpassed and possibility of suspension of disbelief. It all looks shiny and expensive, but to me it didn’t need to be that way; personally I prefer low-budget comedies where the dialogue is the star and not flashy set-pieces.

A lot of Tropic Thunder is played a little too broad to be funny all the time, but when it’s funny it’s really funny. When satire of the Hollywood system is the focus I find myself hard pressed to think of a better example of the genre. It’s not the best comedy in recent memories to say the least but the positive thankfully outweighs the negative.

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About Ross Miller