Thursday, August 21, 2008

'Thunder'ous laughter

“Tropic Thunder” is a raunchy, outrageous comedy, but that’s nothing new in today’s market. After all, this summer we’ve already had “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” “Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express.” Is there room for any more over-the-top ridiculousness?

When a film is as sharp as “Tropic Thunder,” the answer is unequivocally yes.

Ben Stiller co-wrote, directed and stars in “Thunder,” a piercing satire on the movie industry centered on a group of actors who don’t realize the Vietnam War movie they are starring in has become real, or at least real enough with a drug ring standing in for the Vietcong. The motley crew of actors are so self-involved that after being told the jungles have been rigged with hidden cameras to capture a raw, guerilla-style look, they assume everything they encounter is part of the movie.

The movie opens with hilarious fake commercials and trailers introducing the stars of the movie within the movie. Stiller is
Tugg Speedman, a fading action star whose one attempt at serious acting, “Simple Jack,” was a disaster. Jack Black is Jeff Portney, the heroin addicted star of a series of films called “The Fatties.” Robert Downey Jr. is Kirk Lazarus as Australian method actor who has a special treatment so he can play the black lieutenant in the film — much to the chagrin of Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper who is forced to take a second fiddle role.

A few weeks ago I complained about “Step Brothers” being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar, and now I am praising “Tropic Thunder,” which features dialogue that would make the rude characters in “Step Brothers” blush. The difference is that here the crude humor actually has a point and is given a context. The film’s satirical edge makes the more shocking humor more palatable.

Stiller and Black are good here — Black gets a particularly huge laugh for a particularly obscene line of dialogue while he’s tied to a tree going through withdrawals — but they are doing variations on their standard shticks. It is Downey who takes the film into the comedy stratosphere.

Following his knockout performance in “Iron Man,” this is turning out to be a very good year for Downey. That Downey is able to pull off a performance in a black face that is non-offensive just goes to show how a great an actor he truly is.

The performance works because Downey commits completely to the character of a pretentious actor who believes he can play anyone and who becomes so lost in his performances that he doesn’t "break character until the DVD commentary.” It also helps that any accusations of racism are addressed directly in the film in a series of amusing confrontations between Downey and Jackson.

Outside of the leads, there are unexpected supporting performances from big-name stars. Tom Cruise’s presence in the cast was kept low-key until the film’s release, and you’ve never seen him like this. He plays the foul-mouthed, bald, hairy and pudgy studio head, and he is riotously funny. Don’t believe me? I don’t blame you. It has to be seen to believe.

Matthew McConaughey, a talented actor who has been sludging around in lame comedies of late, gets some big laughs as Speedman’s agent whose top priority is getting his client his TiVo. Nick Nolte as the Vietnam veteran who wrote the film brings a gruff intensity that creates a humorous juxtaposition to the actors and crew members around him.

The film also gets strong support from Danny McBride, (“Pineapple Express”) as the explosion effects guy, and Jay Baruchel (“Knocked Up”) as the one non-star cast member who must put up with all the conflicting egos around him.

As a director, this is Stiller’s strongest film, although few realize he directed the underrated Jim Carrey vehicle “The Cable Guy.” Stiller paces the comedy just right, and in the case of a scene involving the fate of the film’s fictional director (Steve Coogan, “A Night at the Museum”), he allows the audience a lengthy amount of time to laugh before moving onto the next joke.

Be warned: Even for an R-rated comedy “Tropic Thunder” features some outlandish dialogue and visuals. The film is consistently funny, as long as you don’t mind your humor a bit raw.

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