GFS at the Movies: Tropic Thunder

The fact that a movie like Tropic Thunder not only exists but is doing well at the box office is refreshing for two reasons – first because we live in age of political correctness run amok, where works of mainstream art are neutered beyond recognition lest they offend anyone; and because it’s proof that genre spoofs don’t have to be nothing but an endless parade of tired and already dated sight gags and pop culture references (I’m looking at you Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, etc.).

Tropic Thunder is the type of film National Lampoon might have produced back in the day when they were culturally relevant and not resigned to making movies for sexually frustrated twentysomethings.  It was instead directed and co-written by Ben Stiller, who I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with for the most part since his clever and short-lived TV show.  With this film, he has redeemed himself somewhat in my eyes (until the inevitable Meet the Parents 3 at least).

This movie-within-a-movie concerns the making of Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam War pic that is itself based on the memoir of Sgt. John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte).  It stars an unlikely cast featuring nearly washed up action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), intense Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedic actor Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black), hip hop/commercial mogul Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and the fresh-faced but otherwise unremarkable Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel).

Filming quickly falls behind schedule, helped not in the least by petulant talent and a botched pyrotechnics shot that fondly recalls the opening of the Peter Sellers classic, The Party.  When the film’s producer profanely chews out greenhorn director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), Tayback convinces him that the only way to get things back on track is to immerse the pampered actors in a real jungle combat environment.

I won’t get into the plot any more than that, but you can probably guess that things predictable backfire on Cockburn.  From here, the movie becomes less a spoof and more a direct and broad comedy.  And while the main cast acquits themselves nicely, Tropic Thunder eventually (although perhaps not intentionally) becomes a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., who displays some fine comedic chops as a way-too-serious actor who seems to be a goof on Russell Crowe.  Some of the movie’s funniest moments revolve around the touchy issue of a white actor taking the place of a black one (in this case, not through blackface but through skin pigmentation surgery).

But what actually drew me to the movie in the first place is the ridiculous controversy over its portrayal of people with “intellectual disabilities”.  And I’m here to tell you that while I can see where the protesters are coming from, they’re way out of line here.  It’s a damn comedy, and the scenes in question take up maybe about 10 minutes out of the whole film.  And while I may not use a line like “never go full retard” in Bible discussion group, I laughed hard at it anyway.

But with or without the controversy, I can highly recommend Tropic Thunder.  It’s not a comedy classic, but it’s still damn funny and manages the increasingly uncommon feat of being raunchy and clever at once.  Oh, and it features a cameo appearance that, if you haven’t heard about it yet, is totally unexpected and an ace bit of casting.  I won’t give it away here, but the actor’s name is listed in the tags for this post.  Yet another bit of redemption…

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