‘Tropic Thunder’ buries the year’s comedy competition

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By Sam Watermeier

There may be some confusion in the theater before “Tropic Thunder” begins. In the middle of the previews, an advertisement pops up for an explicitly titled energy drink, “Booty Sweat.” Then, we see a slew of previews for extremely cheesy and distasteful Hollywood movies: an action movie called “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown,” a silly family comedy called, “The Fatties: Fart 2,” etc. The drink advertisement and the previews resemble what we see in the media everyday so closely that we totally buy them. Then, the joke is on the audience when these ads turn out to be fake previews featuring the characters in “Thunder,” a bunch of bloated, talentless actors. Those opening 10 minutes of the film alone show that “Tropic Thunder” is one of the best satires on Hollywood ever made. It takes accurate stabs at the business side of the industry, the strange politics involved and most importantly, the lack of originality in the films themselves. Ironically, this film has one of the most original plots in recent years as well as non-stop laughs. However, it is not perfect by any means. Some of the jokes are redundant and the humor is sometimes too dependant on vulgarity. Despite these flaws, it is still one of the best comedies of the year.

“Tropic Thunder” follows a group of pretentious actors making a war film. Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is known for action films whereas Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is known for a comedy franchise involving a fat, gassy family (not far from Eddie Murphy’s ‘Nutty Professor’ franchise) and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is known as the Oscar-winner. Lazarus, pretentious as he is, even undergoes special skin-pigment changing surgery to play an African-American platoon leader. The production does not go as planned. So, the director (Steve Coogan) and the author (Nick Nolte) of the book that the film within-the-film is based on, come up with a plan to send the actors into the middle of a real war to make the film more authentic. However, the actors are completely oblivious of this fact and this is when the hilarity ensues.

In this film, nothing is sacred. Writer-director Stiller attacks everyone and everything Hollywood-related with his sharp, biting wit. Producers and agents are depicted as greasy, money-grubbing sleazebags who would sell out their friends for a G5 airplane. Stiller also pokes fun at the Academy for always awarding or at least nominating actors who portray the mentally challenged. This tradition is unfortunately true when you think about reality (Tom Hanks- “Forrest Gump,” Dustin Hoffman- “Rain Man,” Sean Penn- “I Am Sam,” etc.) One can sense Stiller’s frustration with the strangeness of the film industry in these scenes. He definitely has an agenda in the way he pokes fun at these strange Hollywood customs. He wants to open Hollywood’s eyes and our own. That is great satire, the kind with a point that also makes a difference. Stiller reminds audiences why they love comedies- they are cathartic. That’s the good news. Now, it’s time to address this film’s major weakness.

To explain the major flaw of this film, I’m going to steal a joke from the Comedy Central roast of Bob Saget: If some comedians use vulgar language as a crutch, Ben Stiller must be a quadriplegic. There are too many scenes in “Tropic Thunder” that feature random vulgarity for shock value. This is evident especially in the scenes with Tom Cruise as fat, bald producer Les Grossman. One of the main reasons he is funny is because he swears so much and audiences are not used to that kind of profanity coming from Cruise. Although it is humorous, it becomes redundant and, in the end, turns stale. Plus, profanity makes for cheap laughs and Stiller should know that by now.

Despite its flaws, “Tropic Thunder” is still the best comedy of the year so far. I guarantee that it will make you laugh harder than any other film playing right now. Its broad comedy is a refreshing change of direction from the naturalistic comedy of Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg that is simply becoming dull. Its performances are also much more exciting to watch than the performances in “Pineapple Express.” Downey Jr. and Cruise portray their characters with complete conviction whereas “Apatow actors” seem like they are not really trying. “Tropic Thunder” is the kind of fresh comedy we need right now. Take note, Mr. Apatow.

Grade: A-