Comedy is hard. Comedy doesn’t always work. But Tropic Thunder does. In fact, I’d argue it’s the funniest film in years.
From concept to screenplay to casting to execution, it’s a winner. Like City Slickers Meets Deliverance in Vietnam, it concerns a disastrous film shoot in which the principal cast is set loose and stranded in the wilderness, some believing they’re still on camera to extemporaneously perform a 1969 war tale melding parts of Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan into a singular jungle hell, part art-house and all mayhem.
Director and co-write Ben Stiller sticks close to his familiar persona as a clueless poser and vapid semi-star — this time a fading action hero who’s lucky to be working alongside five-time Aussie Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. Downey plays an African-American soldier in the film within the film, and the actor is so Method that he walks and talks the part 24-7 with amusing in-your-face, no-nonsense “We cool” demeanor.
Jack Black plays a marginal comedy star who’s best known for flatulence jokes, desperately needs a fix and has no shame. And Nick Nolte is ideally cast as the grizzled Viet vet who wrote the book being churned into the film.
But this is Downey’s movie to steal, and he takes it, rambling and ranting about acting theories with nutty professorial zeal while sticking to his cool-dude character with utter conviction. Think Russell Crowe gone native in ‘Nam and you’re onto something. Bottom line: Downey’s character is the cast’s best and most honored actor by far, and Downey himself is the cast’s best and most honored actor by far. You might say that fits.
But really, all of this works — and it doesn’t stop working. Upon a first viewing of Tropic Thunder on DVD, I was laughing so hard that I had to take an intermission break. And I’ve watched it a second time since then.
On the new two-disc DVD from DreamWorks, deleted scenes aren’t much, but other extra features explore the film’s creation with some of the same crazy creativity with which it was performed. And though recycled old songs may not sound like creativity, those of Tropic Thunder were so skillfully chosen and placed in the film that they’re an art in themselves, from Steppenwolf’s The Pusher to Ten Years After’s I’d Love to Change the World to Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth.
I could go on, but you should simply savor this DVD with a fresh sense of your own discovery, whether you saw Tropic Thunder theatrically or not.
Finally, let’s give props to Stiller and company for such a dead-on skewering of their own industry, as also embodied by greedily grasping agent Matthew McConaughey and greedily gonzo producer Tom Cruise. The latter had lost me as an actor and a star — utterly lost me, I’d thought — via his many missteps in recent years, but I give him full credit for this amoral, belligerent, ruthless and unhinged producer who may be reprehensible, but also gets things done. And his little celebratory dance (the guy loves his work) is so good that it takes us through part of the end-credits. Great pudgy bald-guy makeup, too.
So thanks Ben, Robert, Tom, Jack and everyone. You’ve brought high humor into a world laid low by economic disaster. And oddly, by ripping Hollywood types so well, and so creatively, you’ve also done your industry and your art proud. Tropic Thunder is one great picture.