The opening salvo of Tropic Thunder reps perhaps the funniest 10 minutes I've encountered in a movie theater this year -- that's good news in that it kicks the picture off on a high note and bad news in that it instantly raises concerns that the remaining 95 minutes won't come close to touching this raucous beginning. But the best news is that the movie manages to keep the laughs hurtling forward for its entire running time, no small feat in an era in which many comedies lose steam by the final reel (even the likable Pineapple Express dries up with plenty of time left on the scoreboard).
Ben Stiller, whose fingers are all over this picture (star, director, co-writer, co-producer), does himself proud by successfully orchestrating the diverse elements that make up this ambitious film, from a roster of A-list actors (some in supporting roles) to a decidedly non-PC screenplay that touches upon clashing acting methods, venal movie moguls, and the correct way to portray a mentally challenged character (tip: don't go "full retard" if you want a shot at the Oscar). But despite many potshots at Hollywood, this isn't an insider piece like Robert Altman's brilliant Tinseltown dissection, The Player -- after all, when your cast includes Jack Black, there's sure to be some lowbrow humor lurking somewhere.
Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a macho action star whose one attempt at an awards-bait title, the resounding flop Simple Jack, has largely derailed his career. Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a comedian known for vulgar blockbusters (up next: The Fatties, Fart 2). And Robert Downey, Jr. essays the role of Kirk Lazarus, a five-time Academy Award-winning actor celebrated for his Method approach to acting. All three, plus rap star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and screen newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel, best known -- depending on one's age and cinematic preferences -- as the simple-minded boxer Danger in Million Dollar Baby and as a member of Seth Rogen's posse in Knocked Up), are in Vietnam shooting the war movie to end all war movies.
But on-set mishaps and temperamental actors immediately put the film behind schedule, and the grizzled technical advisor (Nick Nolte) suggests to the director (Steve Coogan) that the pampered stars should be taken to a rough spot of the jungle where, away from the rest of the cast and crew, they'll buckle up and get the movie made. Unfortunately for the thespians, they find themselves the targets of vicious, heavily armed locals who don't take kindly to what they mistakenly believe to be DEA agents searching for their heroin factory.
Rude and crude, Tropic Thunder displays minimal mercy toward its targets, yet even its gross-out gags (watch out for those false teeth!) display a manic ingenuity far removed from the one-note crudeness found in your typical Will Ferrell vehicle. Stiller is funnier here than he's been in some time, and he's especially blessed to have surrounded himself with such a knockout cast. Black has some riotous moments as a drug fiend struggling with his dependency (another seemingly taboo subject that becomes comic fodder), while Matthew McConaughey, freed from inane rom-coms opposite Kate Hudson, is appealing as Speedman's lively agent (perhaps like fellow "guy's guy" Vince Vaughn, McConaughey is more comfortable working with members of the same sex). The cast even includes Tom Cruise, who's clearly having fun as a bald, bad-tempered studio boss with no morals whatsoever (it's like re-watching Cruise's Magnolia character, only this time outfitted with a laugh track).
Yet the acting honors easily go to Downey. His Kirk Lazarus is so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes surgery to have his skin darkened so he can play an African-African character in the Vietnam War opus. Being a Method actor means that he talks "black" even when the cameras aren't rolling, an affectation that really annoys Chino, the cast's authentic African-American. Downey is an absolute riot in this role, and between this and Iron Man, I'd say he's having a helluva summer.
CHRISTOPHER BELL AND HIS two brothers, older sibling Mike ("Mad Dog") and younger bro Mark ("Smelly"), were pudgy children, but luckily for them, they grew up in the 1980s, when prominent role models included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan. Inspired by these larger-than-life heroes, all three Bell kids eventually started hitting the gym and grew up to become ripped musclemen themselves. So imagine Christopher's shock when he later learned that his childhood heroes confessed to achieving their freakish sizes via performance enhancing drugs, primarily steroids.
Christopher briefly tried steroids, but he felt so ashamed that he quickly turned his back on them. The same, however, couldn't be said for his brothers, who've spent most of their adult lives on the drug in the hopes of emerging as the biggest and the best in their respective sports (pro wrestling for Mad Dog, power lifting for Smelly). With a personal investment in the subject matter, Christopher elected to make Bigger, Stronger, Faster*: *The Side Effects of Being American, which, like many of the best documentaries, doesn't take us exactly where we expect to go.