As an actor, Ben Stiller’s career is littered with two gears. On the one side, is the unassuming unlucky, a regular guy that runs into irregular circumstances: “There’s Something About Mary”, “Keeping the Faith”, “Meet the Parents”, and “Along Came Polly”. The other side of the ledger, one that usually results in hits or misses from Stiller, is when he ventures into ridiculous overacting for the sake of laughter: made popular by his Tony Perkis in “Heavy Weights”, carried on in “Happy Gilmore”, “Zoolander”, “Mystery Men”, “Starsky & Hutch” and “Dodgeball”.
Stiller’s multi-gear ability is why he’s considered one of Hollywood’s top acting talents, and it’s why he’s afforded a directorial project like “Tropic Thunder” — a reportedly $100 million cost, aimed at one of the most unique storylines in recent memory.
However, frustratingly, Stiller has not had the same versatility behind the lens that he offers in front of it. Gone is our unassuming unlucky protagonist, and in is memorable hyperbolic characters like Derek Zoolander, The Cable Guy, and now, Kirk Lazarus. Clearly, Stiller’s preferred brand of comedy ventures away from his success with the Farrely Brothers and Robert De Niro, and more into Will Ferrell’s ridiculous low brow comedic culture.
“Tropic Thunder” is a practice in overacting, overdirecting, and overwriting, but it’s all done for the purpose of laughter. Stiller’s fourth directorial flick is his largest in scope, his largest in ambition, and ultimately, his largest in laughter. Stiller and co-writer Justin Theroux go to every well — no matter how cheep — for laughs, and the result is the most side-splitting I can remember at a movie theatre.
Simply, “Tropic Thunder” is the apex for low brow comedy, as Stiller continues the quest he began in “Zoolander”: to attack and expose the notion of celebrity.
The film is supposed to take place on the set of “Tropic Thunder”, a Vietnam War epic calling on actors from all genres of the Hollywood universe: Tugg Speedman (Stiller), an action hero whose recent attempt at leaving his genre to portray the mentally handicapped in “Simple Jack” resulted in the worst movie of all time. Jack Portnoy (Jack Black) is the white, fat version of Eddie Murphy, only with a chemical dependency. And then there’s Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), five-time Oscar winning Aussie, who is famous for his immersion into a role. For “Tropic Thunder”, Lazarus undergoes a pigmentation surgery so he can more accurately play the African-American sergeant in the film.
Things go awry when director Damien Cockburn decides to shoot his movie guerilla style, tossing his acting legends into the Vietnamese (or so he thinks) jungle. While Speedman does his best to play along, the others realize there’s far more surrounding them than Cockburn’s hidden cameras.
I’m not sure who is credited for the casting of Stiller’s film, but it’s clear that with Stiller at the helm, he deserves the praise for the talent in the film. Would Downey Jr. have donned black face paint and reduced himself to cheap racial humor for anyone else? There’s no chance Tom Cruise, known to be a good friend of Stiller, would have taken his cameo as an insane studio executive for anyone else. From there, whether it’s Nick Nolte or Matthew McConaughey, we’re just glad Stiller has connections.
In a sense, the film suffers from Stiller’s inexperience behind the camera. It’s poorly edited, and has one too many gaps to achieve it’s high-aiming aspirations. However, Stiller is an actor’s director, without question, and the result are acting performances that keep the film afloat. Contrary to other critical opinions, there is not one performance that carries this film single-handedly. Downey Jr. and Cruise have the most memorable roles, for obvious reasons, but every dog has its day here.
The first half-hour of the movie is a showcase for Nick Nolte’s comedic talents, as he’s brilliant as Four Leaf Tayback, the writer of “Tropic Thunder”‘s source material. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson both manage to have their memorable moments aside three huge actors, with Baruchel contributing numerous memorable moments. Jack Black might dive too deep into Stiller’s overacting goal, but he also gives the most jaw-dropping monologue in the movie.
This is a film that never takes itself seriously at all, and is 100% designed for the audience. While I still have hopes that one day Stiller finds the versatility as a director he offers as an actor — can we ever see situational comedy from behind the camera? — he has succeeded seemingly as much as jaw-dropping, side-splitting, low-brow comedy can offer.
WHAP Rating: 3.7/5.0