When Hollywood lampoons itself it is almost always not funny enough because it is trying too hard to be real. The truth is, most of us don’t really care what goes on in the lives of those who run the film business. It doesn’t matter how spectacular their lives are; we don’t really care because ultimately, their problems are miniscule compared with most of ours. Either that or the jokes just aren’t funny.
There have been a scant few Hollywood movies that get over themselves enough to be worthwhile, like Robert Altman’s The Player or Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle and now, Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder, which he co-wrote with actor Justin Theroux.
What Tropic Thunder gets so right is the fragile egos that often give rise to the ridiculous giants who go to great lengths to win Oscars and accolades, or completely sell themselves out just to taste the high life. The desperation of staying in the limelight is something we see fading stars go through every day. It is as depressing as anything because these aren’t really people who can go out and live ordinary lives; they must live out the sentence of being famous, for better or worse, richer or poorer.
Tropic Thunder was criticized by groups representing the disabled because one of the characters in the film makes a flail for Oscar by playing someone “slow.” The problem with the film isn’t that it lampoons actors who attempt this, and they all do at one point or another, but the liberal use of the word “retard” for comic effect is as offensive here as it is on Saturday Night Live or in any Judd Apatow movie. In a perfect world these writers would be aware of how hurtful that word is, being that it’s a catch-all for anyone dealing with a disability.
The portrayal of “Simple Jack” by Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, though, is as inspired as Robert Downey, Jr.’s Australian actor doing the whole film in black face. The subjects themselves aren’t being lampooned, the actors who insist upon playing them in order to appear versatile or brilliant are. Both of these characters, and the rest of the cast, make serious fun of Oscar bait war movies in a way that hasn’t really been done before.
The film tracks Apocalypse Now, but does it with a group of actors who are lost in the jungle after their director is blown up by a land mine. The same way Marlon Brando’s character goes deep into the jungle and goes insane, refusing to come back, so does Tugg Speedman, attempting to get the credit he thinks he deserves for playing “Simple Jack,” a movie one journalist called “the worst film ever made.”
Stealing the show in a big way is Downey, Jr., whose Kirk Lazarus had a special treatment to make his skin appear black and refuses to drop his character at any point because he’s just that serious of an actor. Naturally, he greatly disturbs Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Johnson) who really is black and can’t stomach the ridiculous caricature.
Finally, it must be said that Tom Cruise, donned up in a fat suit and a chest wig, goes full throttle crazy, reminding us that underneath all of the nonsense Cruise is and always has been damned good.
With so many Oscar movies coming in the next few months, Tropic Thunder reminds us not to take any of it too seriously. They are, after all, only pretending.