The capsule view of Ben Stiller’s in-your-face comedy of egos goes like this: an inconsistent, multi-genre amalgam that delivers some inspired riffs, a Disneyworld of offensive stereotypes, Grade A men-in-groups horseplay, a rousing, shorts-sucking send-up of Hollywood greed, and the genius of Robert Downey Jr. It’s also unspeakably funny.
All of this sometimes brilliant, sometimes so-so cinematic bombast is redeemed by the ease and intelligence of Downey’s cunning performance — a role, within a role, within a role — think multiple personality disorder of the sort to which character actors like Peter Sellers, Marlon Brando, Ben Kingsley were prey.
Downey’s character, Kirk Lazarus – an Australian multiple Oscar-winner (think Russell Crowe) cast as a black Vietnam era soldier — is so committed to his role in the film within the film, that he has undergone drug therapy to darken his skin. Add the appropriate hair treatments and Richard Roundtree/Jim Brown voice lowered an octave or so, and you’ve got an eerie and ironically likeable blaxploitation stud. Downey not only doesn’t back down from what could have been an offensive stereotype, he works it right down to the Shaft.
Downey’s uncanny incarnation of a brother from another planet — Planet Hollywood — creates a terrific bookend performance to Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both take every risk, and even invent a few more to craft fully-fleshed characters, offering so much detail that they deserve a second, and third viewing.
It’s to his credit that director and co-writer Ben Stiller casts himself in the role he has mastered over the years – an earnest loser who always misses the glory. Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman is a fading star of five sci-fi disaster epics about the end of the earth as we know it (think Sylvester Stallone or William Shatner). Struggling to revive his career, he joins the cast of a Vietnam era testosterone epic (also entitled Tropic Thunder), playing a platoon leader on a Viet Cong-saturated rescue mission. Letting it all hang out, once again, Jack Black plays a heroin-addicted sit-com actor who adds the expected corpulence and flatulence, as well as surprising charisma, to the mix.
Throw in a real African-American actor, Brandon T. Jackson as an MTV hip-hopper named Alpa Chino (a move that takes the edge off charges that Downey’s black portrayal is racist), plus the rumpled visage of Nick Nolte as a fraudulent Vietnam veteran whose autobiography is the source of the movie-within-the-movie’s script – and you’ve got expletive-driven rumble in the jungle.
Tropic Thunder is 100% narcissist performance art with absolutely no parental control, or feminizing influence in sight. Beyond gross, the film soars into gory, gunky, slurpy, silly, inspired satire. And since Hollywood itself is Stiller’s prime target, the sparkling cameo by Tom Cruise as a beyond greedy producer produces some choice moments of oleaginous delight.
Film buffs will savor the inter-textual references to other jungle epics and other Big Screen Egos. But this film will offend almost everyone, especially the ultra-PC among us. But as far as I’m concerned, even the most over-the-top offences play resoundingly in the hands of Downey, who will – it has to be said – do just about anything to power his role to a whole other level of psycho-complexity.