Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

There are few more masturbatory genres than the showbiz satire. It's not unlike the semi-inexplicably popular blog Stuff White People Like, in that the group that's ostensibly being ribbed is actually getting congratulated on how cool they are. This goes double for Hollywood satires, since they're invariably made by those with power within the moviemaking system, which affords them a comfortable enough position to get away with playfully gumming the hand that feeds. Short of honest-to-goodness blood-drawing satires like Sunset Blvd. or The Player, most movies about moviemaking succeed or fail on the basis of entertainment value, and in that respect, Tropic Thunder works pretty damn well. Which basically means that I laughed a lot. You won't gain much new insight into the ins and outs of the studio system or the nuts and bolts of big-budget filmmaking, but it's funny stuff. Much of this can be credited to Stiller the director's willingness to go as far as it takes to get laughs. Years of safe, family-friendly twaddle have no doubt given him an itch to push the envelope of good taste, and thank goodness for that. But while racially-dicey plot points or newly-controversial scenes involving Stiller as "Simple Jack" might seem politically incorrect to a fault, it's all in the service of a story that time and again sticks it to those whose lives have kept them at a distance from the mores and standards of the outside world. Likewise, Stiller thankfully distributes the good stuff to his (highly talented) cast- a heroin-addicted low-comedy star played by Jack Black, a John Milius-esque screenwriter played by Nick Nolte, a trigger-happy explosives guy played by the suddenly ubiquitous Danny McBride, and the cheerfully vulgar (in every way) studio exec played by SPOILER Tom Cruise END SPOILER. But best of all is Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus, the obsessive Method actor who comes off as a cross between Russell Crowe's mannerisms and Daniel Day-Lewis' acting style. Kirk's pigmentation operation might have come off as a shameless schtick in less capable hands, but Downey makes Lazarus into a fully-functioning character- which of course makes him even funnier. Not all of Tropic Thunder works- after a while the plot doesn't matter as much as the movie thinks it does- but it's mostly a blast, containing at least one bit of shocking laughter as memorable as the gas-station fight in Zoolander. The movie's no classic, but I won't lie to you- I damn near laughed until my eyes started raining. Rating: 7 out of 10.

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