Satires work best when they skewer sacred cows, the more sacred the better. But, with one notable exception, the cows in "Tropic Thunder" are far from sacred, which means the satire is far from funny when they are skewered.
Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, and directed by Stiller, "Tropic Thunder" spins a yarn about a bunch of overpaid, overly pretentious and utterly spoiled movie stars who while filming a war movie in Vietnam suddenly find themselves in a real war – but they think the real war is part of the movie so they stay in character even as the bombs and bullets fly!
A cute concept to be sure, but, as mentioned above, Hollywood has been making fun of Hollywood since the days of Charlie Chaplin, making this territory so well-plowed that it’s become a litany of clichés, and it’s hard to milk humor from a cliché, just as it’s hard to laugh at the same joke one hundred times over. Numerous movies over the years have already mocked pampered, insecure movie stars, crass, foul-mouthed producers, arrogant, tyrannical directors, and slick, obsequious agents. And today’s multi-media age has inundated the public with TV shows ("Access Hollywood"), cable series ("Entourage") and Web sites (TMZ.com; Defamer.com) that spoof celebrities and the culture that spawns them.
So a movie like "Tropic Thunder" has to come up with a twist on the same old Hollywood stereotypes to stand out from the pack – unfortunately, all it does is spit them right back out again for two hours. Though it’s certainly unusual to see the perennially boyish Tom Cruise play a crass, foul-mouthed producer, especially with a bald pate and oversized, hairy arms, it’s still a cliché that has lost its power to shock and amuse no matter who is performing the role.
"Tropic Thunder" also aims to be a send-up of war movies, but even here there is a problem since most of the movies being sent-up ("Platoon," "Apocalypse Now," "Uncommon Valor," "Rambo," "Saving Private Ryan") are over a decade old at this point, making them very dated as the subject of humor. The most successful parodies (i.e. the "Scary Movie" franchise) poke fun at pop culture much more recent, and thus much more familiar, to audiences so that they get the joke. "Tropic Thunder’s" failure to do this makes its satire feel even mustier.
"Tropic Thunder" does score some genuine laughs due to its most comically inventive storyline – one of the movie stars, the very Caucasian Aussie Kirk Lazarus (an outrageously funny Robert Downey, Jr.), plays his part as an African-American, even going so far in his "method" acting as to dye his skin black! Now this is very effective satire since it skewers one of the only sacred cows in the picture – race, or our unwillingness to even discuss it. It pushes the boundaries of good taste, like all great satire does, but doesn’t cross the line into offensiveness since the script isn’t mocking African-Americans, but Lazarus’ attempt to become one, and thus take on the emotional experiences of another ethnic group, through the most superficial way possible – a quick make-up job.
By taking this character down a peg, "Tropic Thunder" makes a powerful point – it takes more than lip service to really walk in another man’s shoes. Better still, it makes the point through humor so that it doesn’t come across as a dry, on-the-nose lecture. This is what satire should strive for, and this is where "Tropic Thunder" so often falls short.
Though there are some side-splitting moments courtesy of Downey, Jr. and some incredibly raunchy dialogue (the word "gravy" will never have the same connotation again), "Tropic Thunder" isn’t worth marching off to see at your local megaplex. Transfer to the rear and wait for the DVD release instead – that way you can fast-forward to the scenes with Downey, Jr. and skip the rest.
Note: "Tropic Thunder" is rated "R" for good reason, as it contains plenty of vulgar language and graphic violence – so caveat emptor.
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Tom McCurrie is a regular contributor to Hollywoodlitsales.com.