Movie Review: Tropic Thunder
Any movie featuring MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” before the basic plot has even been outlined is destined to be a problem, but mostly in a good way. Tropic Thunder was just that. Continuing the lowbrow and nonsensical brand of comedy that Ben Stiller has become well-known for, Tropic Thunder is a send-up of the Hollywood movie machine that strokes moviegoers’ pre-existing perception that everyone involved in the industry is ultimately ridiculous. The tasteless early trailers for Tropic Thunder caused a stir among black folks and disability groups thanks to the over-the-top “blackface” of Robert Downey Jr. and the repeated use of the word “retard” (which, FYI, is also now known as “the r-word”). I wish that troubling our sensibilities was the worst of Tropic Thunder; while it was laugh out loud funny at some spots, in the end it was just “ok.”
Tropic Thunder is best thought of as a movie within a movie. After a series of fake movie trailers introducing each of the characters, we’re brought to the set of the true-story action flick “Tropic Thunder,” billed as “the biggest war movie ever,” which is already extremely over-budget thanks to a group of vain, limelight-seeking actors and crew. I’m not a fan of real war movies (or war itself, for that matter), so from the start the jokes spoofing that genre may fall a little flat. As the plot progresses, however, the familiar ground of the Hollywood machinery taking itself too seriously occupies center stage. The real action begins when the actors end up in the jungles of Southeast Asia fighting off a real drug gang led by a little pre-teen scoop of lychee ice cream simply called “Tran.” By this point, the disabled, blacks, and Asians could easily be offended, but everyone else also gets theirs throughout the course of the film. There’s mockery and then there’s satire; the humor in Tropic Thunder, when taken properly in context, is clearly satire.
Ben Stiller’s obliviously retarded facial expressions and endearing disheveled Jewishness are so cute and funny to me that I’ve seen almost every other movie he’s made. He’s like a Buttered Popcorn Jellybean – so wrong that he’s right. In the ridiculousness department, Tropic Thunder picks up where Zoolander and Dodgeball left off, a feat that seems mainly thanks to Stiller’s cheekiness as fallen-from-grace action star Tugg Speedman. Robert Downey, Jr. gives an unexpectedly sophisticated performance as Australian character actor Kirk Lazarus, who himself spent the bulk of the movie immersed in the black character Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, saying “I don’t drop character ’til I’ve done the DVD commentary.” Once I realized that his “blackface,” was part of the plot and that role couldn’t have gone to a black actor, I thought that the portrayal was brilliant. Within thirty minutes I was irritated by Downey’s speech patterns, which were intentionally over-the-top depictions of rough Negrospeak. Within an hour, I was driven crazy by his protruding prosthetic lower lip, which reminded me of a butterflied breakfast sausage that had been burnt on the edges. I guess that’s just me being black and sensitive, but it was definitely an unfortunate buzzkill that threatened to make me start playing with my BlackBerry instead of following the action.
Jack Black is usually good for some laughs, but his depiction of drug-addicted fart-humorist Jack Portnoy was so lowbrow that it lacked awareness. Granted, there is nothing actually funny about coming down off of that her’on, but to engage in that kind of pre-rehab coonery with recovering addicts Robert Downey, Jr. and Nick Nolte on set? This sort of recurring self-awareness miss made the “biting the hand that feeds it” aspect of the satirization of Hollywood less than seamless. On the flipside, I was impressed and entertained by the fresh faces of Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, the latter of which played “Alpa Chino,” a less-than-representin’ rapper with his own energy drink, “Booty Sweat”. I’ve noticed that black actors rarely get that much of a career boost from appearing in this type of movie, but I’m hoping that Jackson can parlay the success of Tropic Thunder into more roles in the future. Otherwise, he’ll spend the rest of his career being “that black guy in Tropic Thunder,” because Lord knows he was the only one. A barely-recognizable Tom Cruise and redneck hottie Matthew McConaughey were added treats, and other cameos included Toby Maguire, Jon Voight, and Jason Bateman. At times labored and immature but certainly welcomingly lowbrow, overall Tropic Thunder is a great way to pass the time and get some laughs, but I certainly won’t be picking up any zinger catch-phrases from this movie to repeat amongst my friendship group.
Score:The ticket was $9.00 and what Thembi would do (if she could) is ask for $3.50 back (3 of 5 stars). Sixty-percent is a great score considering about 80% of the laughs are in the first ten minutes and in the trailer, which you can check out below.