Published at: July 13, 2008, 4:47 a.m. CST by quint
TROPIC THUNDER pretty much won me over only a few seconds in when I realized that the rapper character played by Brandon T. Jackson called himself "Alpa Chino." Completely ridiculous and totally plausible. So many rappers are obsessed with SCARFACE, CARLITO'S WAY and THE GODFATHER, and so many name themselves after notorious figures: Capone, Noreaga, Moriarty, Scarface, Rick Ross, Freeway, 50 Cent, Beanie Sigel, Irv Gotti, Young Gotti, Daz Dillinger, Kenn Starr, Jim Jones, Hittler. And I seriously only made up two of those names. So the possibility of Alpa Chino's Booty Sweat Energy Drink actually existing is so likely that I think most of the crowd really wasn't sure if the movie had started or if this was a real advertisement.
And that's one tiny example of why this movie worked for me. Personally I consider parody as it's usually done to be one of the lower artforms, somewhere below smooth jazz and novelty answering machine messages. I haven't watched any of these MEET THE SPARTANS type movies (I had to wash my hair that day I think) or the SCARY MOVIE generation before that, or the one where Leslie Nielsen dresses up as Braveheart. I won't even watch those thumb movies like THUMB WARS, BAT-THUMB or THUMMO. I did watch WALK HARD and I kind of enjoyed it, there were alot of good laughs in it and of course John C. Reilly was good, but for me just being a funny parody doesn't usually hold together as an actual movie.
TROPIC THUNDER isn't really in that category - it's a bunch of parodies within a satire within a meta-something or other that has been ritualistically devoured by a larger parody. But the parody aspects work because they're so accurate. Ben Stiller, after spending most of this century dabbling in mediocrity, comes back to directing with guns fuckin blazin. This is Ben Stiller, director of CABLE GUY, as opposed to Ben Stiller, the guy who agreed of his own free will to star in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 1&2.
As you probaly know, the story is about some dumbass actors (Stiller, Jackson, Jack Black, Jay Baruchel and 2008 America's Sweetheart Robert Downey II) who, while filming a Vietnam War movie, end up abandoned in the jungle fighting a drug cartel, all the while stupidly believing they are doing a BLAIR WITCH style guerilla filmmaking experiment. I think it's a funny premise, but what keeps it going is that the story naturally crosses paths with many different aspects of modern American culture (from stupid NUTTY PROFESSOR style comedies to pretentious Oscar bait, from talentless celebrity drug addicts to self-important geniuses to egomaniacal billionaire executives) and in almost all cases the observations are smart and the attention to detail sells it.
Alot of times the fictional pop culture in a movie is not really believable enough to be very funny (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL is a recent example - funny movie, but the opening Entertainment Tonight segment almost lost me). Stiller (maybe because he used to do that sketch comedy show) knows how to make it all seem legit. If he's doing a trailer for a movie about farting fat people he knows exactly what the narrator says, how he says it, and when "U Can't Touch This" comes in.
By the end of the movie it goes pretty nuts. It kind of turns into RAMBO, but even funnier. It also gets kind of sloppy - I lost track of who had real bullets and what not, and not every joke works. I mean it's not perfect - I don't want to hype it up too much. All of the characters are funny, but most of them leave you wishing a little more had been done with them. Danny McBride (as a pyrotechnician with a Boz cut) and Nick Nolte (as the Vietnam legend who wrote the book the movie-within-a-movie is based on) get sidelined for most of the movie. Maybe some of their stuff was cut out. Nolte is hilarious even when his character takes an unnecessary twist. I'm surprised it took this long after his deranged performance in HULK for somebody to tap him as a secret comedy weapon. He's about the only former leading man who could easily out-BAD SANTA Billy Bob Thornton.
Seriously, think about it. So many movies would be better with Nolte in them. For example the last time I saw Danny McBride in a movie it was that DRILLBIT TAYLOR. The premise is that some kids are so fed up of being bullied that they pool their money to hire a bodyguard. They think they hired a war hero security expert but he's actually just a homeless guy who wants to rob their house. With Owen Wilson as the homeless guy it's cute I guess. But if it was Nick Nolte it would be hilarious. Not only would you believe he was homeless, you would worry that he is actually gonna kill the bullies.
Also, Nolte could've been the father of the baby in JUNO.
Downey will get the most discussion - it's not every day you see Robert Downey, Jr. playing an Australian playing an African-American speaking Chinese. But I want to acknowledge that it's nice to see Jack Black playing a different character than usual. I'm not saying he does some chameleonic transformation, but a fiend chasing dope like that cartoon wolf chases hot chicks is at least different from his usual lovable rock 'n roll loser character, so it's refreshing.
Two of the funniest characters are actually on the outskirts of the movie. Matthew McConaghey plays Stiller's agent as the ultimate Maxim-brained Hollywood rich guy asshole. And I'm not gonna raise him on the same pedestal as Nolte, but I think McConaghey is another actor nobody remembers to take advantage of. Maybe he really wants to be doing Kate Hudson movies for the rest of his life and turns down the good roles, I'm not sure. But every once in a while he gets to really let loose like, say, in REIGN OF FIRE, and the guy is great. If you think he's what the kids call "a total douchebag" that doesn't even matter because this is the role he was born to play. His equally noble and retarded gesture of friendship near the end of the movie was one of the biggest laughs for me.
There's also a superstar actor who you wouldn't expect to do a movie like this, and I didn't even recognize him in his first scene. If you don't know about it try not to hear about it. It might be a calculated move to improve his image, but that doesn't make it not funny as hell. Good job, unnamed actor.
I generally hate reviewing comedies, because I kind of feel like discussing what's funny and what's not is for assholes. I mean how many debates do we need about whether Apatow movies are hilarious or not funny at all? How many people can we get in one talkback pretending that everyone else is stupid for laughing or not laughing at different things? Doesn't anyone feel weird about trying to explain "If you knew anything about film theory and criticism you would know that the one you said was funny is the one that is not funny, the one I think is funny is the one that is actually funny, fuck you you cocksucker, etc."?
But I respect this movie so I thought I should vouch for it. For me anyway it was alot of belly laughs and at times bordered on genuine brilliance. I was kind of in awe of the complex juggling act Stiller is doing as not just the movie-within-the-movie but the movie itself becomes a parody of modern movie styles, making fun of cliches other parodists aren't even smart enough to notice yet. The score is by some guy named Theodore Shapiro, who mostly does cheesy comedies. I sure hope the screening I saw was his score because it's perfect, hitting on every modern action cliche from the quiet exotic sounds during slow motion money shots to the rockin guitars during chaotic battles.
I'm not gonna tell you what to do, but when this comes out next month I recommend it if you like laughter and all that and if you have the same sense of humor as me, which you probaly do, because I don't know man, you seem pretty cool. I think you would like it.