Stars: *** 1/2
Rating: R for language, violence and sexual references
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
I’m a sucker for a Hollywood that skewers its own – think “The Player”, “Get Shorty”, and “Living in Oblivion”. As director, co-producer, co-writer and co-star of the ultimate Tinseltown spoof it appears Ben Stiller agrees.
Narcissism is the operative theme; Hollywood’s most bloated egos fronting an enormous Vietnam epic while struggling to keep cast and crew in check.
Temperamental director Damian Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is having trouble motivating his stars, each more self-important than the next. Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is a washed-up action star desperately clinging to his celebrity. Corpulent comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is attempting a “serious” film to clean up his image while method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), a thinly-veiled Russell Crowe with a stable full of Oscars, is searching for artistic motive and suffering a massive case of identity crisis.
Their movie is “Tropic Thunder”, based on the real-life memoirs of Vietnam vet Sgt. John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), or so he says. As production consultant Tayback is scrambling for a tough-love approach to rouse the actors to new dramatic heights. His suggestion is to shoot the film guerilla-style, gritty and dirty with no handlers or assistants in sight.
To that end the cast is dropped into hostile enemy territory, where their “assignment” is to liberate a POW camp in a fiery ambush that will feel genuine on camera. A slight run-in with a land mine leaves the troupe without direction –the ultimate in impromptu theater.
This pampered band of brothers is frightfully ill-prepared for a “Blair Witch Project” meets “Apocalypse Now” kind of challenge. Speedman is more concerned about the bad box-office of his dramatic debut “Simple Jack” (in which he plays a mentally-challenged farmer who can talk to animals) than emoting over a vicious Vietnamese druglord. Portnoy, veteran of the comic blockbuster “The Fatties” just wants his stash back as he slips into pink-elephant withdrawals and Lazarus is so deep into character (with surgically altered pigment to make him look African American) he can’t get out.
The laughs fly as fast and furious as enemy fire, courtesy of the heroin factory thugs that take our boys hostage. Humor is rough and raunchy and dripping with conceit as the actors mask their insecurities with the blustery bravado and macho posturing so emblematic of fleeting fame.
Full frontal assault belongs to Stiller and company but the rear is brought up by some surprising comic talent – most notably Tom Cruise in a career-saving turn as a monstrously vulgar producer who’s all about the bottom line. Matthew McConaughey makes good as Speedman’s brown-nosing agent and Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride and Brandon T. Jackson (as rapper turned actor Alpa Chino – say it fast) are perfectly on-point as the beleaguered back-ups.
Best of show belongs to Downey’s stirring discourse about handicapped performances that have garnered Academy praise – horribly un-PC and wickedly funny. Ditto Stiller’s rousing let’s-put-on-a-show address at the expense of his indisposed director. Honorable mention to the film’s spoofy opening trailers, featuring each of the leads in their most notorious onscreen role.