Lots of laughs packed into this silly, absurd and deceptively clever parody.

Ben Stiller comedies as €œdumb.€ Crude humor, cheap visual gags, frequent parody, comic-book-like characterization and even some toilet humor. This isn€™t Woody Allen. And yet, not only is this film funny, it nonetheless comes off as surprisingly clever. While comedies with the aforementioned qualities frequently bring to mind second-rate Adam Sandler films, Tropic Thunder has the wit, intelligence and underlying incising sense of mockery that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery had. That film today has been overshadowed and unfairly written off due to its increasingly uninspired and juvenile sequels, but the original was very clever and very funny, a witty send-up of 1960€™s spy films with a lot of great characters and memorable gags. Tropic Thunder reminded me a lot of that film, and it also reminded me that €œdumb comedies€ can be tremendous fun when they are done with skill. Tropic Thunder is a Ben Stiller movie through and through, with its broad humor, quirky, moronic, but strangely sympathetic characters, self-aware parody and clever hijacking of cliché. Unsurprising€”not only is Stiller one of the stars of the film, he also produced, wrote and directed it. No doubt, the next comparison I make will be one frequently observed of the film: it does to Hollywood what Zoolander did to the fashion industry. Zoolander, in fact, is a very close cousin of this film, not only in its treatment and parody of a specific industry, but also the way it is written and filmed. That movie often polarized reactions€”love it or hate it€”but this one, as a parody of Hollywood and action-packed war films, is no doubt much more accessible. It€™s also a lot funnier. The plot of Tropic Thunder begins as a loose analogy to the making of Apocalypse Now. Adapting a famous novel, an expensive war film is in production. Things go awry, however, as the star-studded cast creates scandal, logistical troubles put the film weeks behind schedule and accidents plague the set. Frustrated, the director decides he will film the movie in Vietnam itself, without any crew, using hidden video cameras and an improvised script, in order to inspire real emotions in the pampered A-list actors. Things go wrong, of course; the director accidentally blows himself up, but the cast still believes they are supposed to continue with the film. Alone in the jungle, they get lost and accidentally encounter a guerrilla drug gang, whom they believe to be part of the script as well. Tropic Thunder is not just a satire of war movie clichés, although it accomplishes that feat well, and in a slightly more clever way than the easy targets mocked in stuff like Hot Shots!, here using real personalities to demonstrate the absurdity of the Hollywood machine. The film is moreover a satire on Hollywood itself and its eccentric and dysfunctional personalities, much the way Zoolander was with its fashion models and designers, and by the end becomes its own unique blend of chaos as its various layers tangle and cross-pollinate each other in an ever-increasing orgy of manic absurdity. It also uses its gags effectively, instead of merely dispensing cheap €œthrow-aways€ one after another. Early in the film, we learn that Stiller€™s character is best known for the lead character in a sappy, manipulative tear-jerker about a retarded farm boy called Simple Jack. That sentence may sound ridiculous, but it€™s even more ridiculous when we see a fake trailer for it. Later in the film, as the group gets lost in the jungle and personalities begin to clash, Robert Downey Jr.€™s method-actor chastises him for going €œfull retard,€ suspecting that it has permanently affected Stiller€™s brain. Rain Man€”autistic maybe, but not retarded. Forrest Gump€”slow, but also a world ping-pong champion, not retarded. €œYou went full retard. You never go full retard.€ When Stiller gets taken hostage by the Vietnamese militants they realize he is Simple Jack€”they have a television set and a single VHS, which they have watched over and over again. Instead of killing him, they force him to re-enact the film for them night after night, using straw wigs and powder-cake makeup (and under the encouragement of beatings). Stiller himself does a serviceable job in the lead, but the film is an ensemble piece, and that is why it is effective€” neither one of these people would be tolerable alone, but as a dirty dozen they get their best mined without outliving their welcome, a fate that seems to befall every lesser €œdumb€ comedy. Jack Black is wisely used with restraint, Matthew McConaughey and an unrecognizable Tom Cruise have delightful extended cameo€™s that are employed to great effect, Nick Nolte pops up from time to time in a small role, Jay Baruchel (Undeclared) and Brandon T. Jackson provide good straight men to balance things out, and then of course there is Robert Downey Jr in surprisingly convincing (and all the more ludicrous) blackface as a hot-tempered Australian method-actor who undergoes cross-racial surgery in order to immerse himself in his role. A movie like this is not one you can carry high expectations into. It€™s silly and absurd, but it€™s also deceivingly clever, and it made me laugh more than any other movie has in a long time. I imagine the experience of watching this is infinitely enhanced when it is viewed with a packed room of people. If you thought The Naked Gun or Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery were awful, I€™d stay away from this film. But if you can get off your high horse and be able to laugh at the sight of Ben Stiller in army fatigues karate-kicking a small Asian war-child off an exploding wooden bridge in slow motion, you just might laugh during the swift 107 minutes of Tropic Thunder.



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