I first caught Ben Stilller's Tropic Thunder a couple months ago, at a long-lead screening where the multi-hyphenate was showing it to costar Jack Black, as well as ancillary income-boosting business-types who were being asked to view it for potential ring-tones. (Yes, seriously.) I was bowled over by the very funny performances and all-around great execution, and a second viewing hasn't dimmed my enthusiasm. It's the funniest laffer of the year so far, and the best, most fully realized American studio comedy since Wedding Crashers.
The film is a sprawling, inspired action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the most expensive war film in Hollywood history, based on a book by a grizzled Vietnam veteran (Nick Nolte). Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an award-winning Australian bad-boy known for his intense, "method" commitment to his roles; here he's undergone a controversial pigmentation process to play an African-American character. Lazarus is paired with both Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a comedy star whose latex-laden, lowest-common-denominator flicks (e.g., The Fatties: Fart II) fuel an illicit drug habit, and a fading, dim-bulb action star, Tugg Speedman (Stiller), whose agent (Matthew McConaughey) keeps calling to see if his TiVo has been installed in his on-location hotel suite.
Speedman has a lot riding on Tropic Thunder. He's fresh off a bid for respectability, Simple Jack, that has crashed and burned, critically and commercially; Lazarus points out that Speedman didn't heed the rule of "never going full retard" when searching for awards-baiting material. They're all joined by Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a rapper-turned-actor who peddles his own namesake brand of "Booty Juice," and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a fresh-faced actor looking for his big break. As ballooning costs and out-of-control egos edge the studio toward the brink of having to shut down the movie, frustrated novice director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) decides to try to pull a slick one. Embracing the improvisational whimsies of guerrilla-style filmmaking, he leads his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia for “increased realism,” where they inadvertently encounter real, drug-running bad guys who think the actors are an elite American force from the CIA or DEA. Mayhem ensues, Speedman stubbornly goes his own way (thinking everything is a brilliant ruse, and they're still filming), and the rest of the cast is forced to eventually try to come to his rescue.
Scripted by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, Tropic Thunder has a great main-hook concept of course, and it works decently and most immediately as a spoof on Vietnam War flicks and their many clichés. But the film is also very much — indeed, mostly — an attack on actors and their quirks, vanities and insecurities, hence the bold casting of Downey, Jr., who delivers on so many levels (when his affected, grits-and-fatback Southern drawl slips, grace notes of an Australian accent poke through) that it's almost not to be believed. Tropic Thunder is that rare, heartening comedy that doesn't just stop at the "first" level of the joke. Without revealing too many specifics, much to its benefit, the movie continues to make bold choices throughout — relating to fakery, sexual identity, and even death — and this wholehearted fleshing out of character and plot lets the film retain its edge, and spark.
Apart from Downey, Jr., the cast is uniformly fantastic, particularly a few relatively new additions to the usual slate of Stiller regulars — McConaughey, Baruchel and Danny McBride, who also appeared with Stiller in The Heartbreak Kid. The quips are great, too. Late in the film, when Speedman, in Hearts of Darkness-style, develops Stockholm Syndrome for his captors, and doesn't want to leave, the intense Lazarus can empathize with his near-catatonic character devotion. "The same thing happened to me when I played Neil Armstrong in Moonshot," he says. "They found me in an alley in Burbank trying to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere in a refrigerator box..."
Finally, the movie is also perhaps most surprisingly notable for the complete rejuvenation of Tom Cruise's career that it provides. After the under-performance of Mission: Impossible III, the implosion of Lions for Lambs, the nutty Scientology stuff, and the whole messy split/boot-to-the-ass from Paramount, the longtime home of his production shingle, Cruise needed something to just remind audiences of the urgent, fiercely mesmeric qualities of his total screen commitment, and Tropic Thunder provides that in spades. As hairy-armed, pot-bellied, wildly foul-mouthed studio head Les Grossman, Cruise totally owns his scenes, obliterating brought-to-the-table preconceptions of him in a way that few actors with a filmography of his length effectively can in cameo form. (DreamWorks/Paramount, R, 107 minutes)