Week 38: Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder

MPAA#: 44367
Showtime: 9:30
Ticket price: 10.99
Seat: lower right
Shotgun: none
Attendance: about 12
Weather: cool
Food: Coke, pretzel dog, chocolate covered raisins
Expectations: moderate
Met?: exceeded
Pre-show ads: Telus
Trailers: Ghost Town, Eagle Eye

It’s ironic that just before I went to see Tropic Thunder, a friend returned my DVDs of the BBC series Extras, in which The Office creator and star Ricky Gervais took the piss out of the film and TV industries, especially in his native UK. Each episode of Extras featured guest stars playing themselves, often gleefully looking like bigger, more self-absorbed jerks than David Brent ever dreamed of becoming.

One of those guest stars was Ben Stiller, who has clearly taken that experience with him into Tropic Thunder, where he serves as director, co-star and co-writer; and while Extras often depicted the very British acting dilemmas of moving from stage to screen, Stiller targets the very American obsession with action stars, war movies, and how American actors get rewarded in their business.

Whatever you may think of Stiller as an actor or some of his movies, there is a lot that he gets right in Tropic Thunder:

1) he surrounds himself with funny people who are also good actors. Robert Downey Jr., who is having a hell of a year between this and Iron Man, plays an insecure method actor who has won plenty of awards and loves to discuss the craft. Jack Black is in good form as a drug-fuelled comic who hates how he has become successful. UK comedy legend Steve Coogan (Hamlet 2) has a brief but brilliant role as the director of the film-within-the-film, and Tom Cruise has received some well-deserved buzz for channeling Robert DeNiro to play a studio executive.

2) Stiller and his cast play it straight. There isn’t a lot of mugging or knowing winks to the camera in Tropic Thunder; the cast understands that the situation itself is funny and while I am sure they had some latitude to improvise, they do not break character to do it. Everyone is committed.

3) The script does not insult our intelligence and is not aimed at teenagers. It is a multi-layered achievement that juggles observations on race, on the acting process and why actors do what they do or choose the roles they choose, on the American film industry and the cultures that support it. There are inevitable send-ups of classic war films like Platoon and less classic films like Missing In Action, but not so often or so long that we are pulled out of the world they create.

While its biggest obvious influence is Apocalypse Now, in a weird way Tropic Thunder is also like a modern version of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, another one of the greatest American films ever made. It is not a perfect movie- the last act is significantly weaker than the rest- but it is a cut above most American comedies this year and its ambitions are a nice change of pace.

Crowd reaction at end of movie: laughter
Weird credit(s): none
Credit cookie?: no, but just as there was a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, there is a free mockumentary about the making of Tropic Thunder available for download at the iTunes Music Store. If you have iTunes, click here to check it out.
For further consideration:
Opening next week: Miracle at St. Anna, Choke, Eagle Eye, Nights in Rodanthe, The Lucky Ones
Please god, anything but: Nights in Rodanthe

About Scott M

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