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An insider's joke

Ben Stiller, left, and Robert Downey Jr. portray actors who don’t realize their war movie has been transformed into real-life danger in Tropic Thunder.

Paramount Pictures

Ben Stiller, left, and Robert Downey Jr. portray actors who don’t realize their war movie has been transformed into real-life danger in Tropic Thunder.

Tropic Thunder will likely be the most successful Hollywood spoof that the movie industry ever inflicted upon itself.

Not much of an accomplishment, when you consider moviegoers' usual indifference to inside-Hollywood comedy.

Get Shorty ($72-million) and Bowfinger ($66-million) are the top moneymaking backlot satires ever. Thanks to relentless marketing and a carpet-bombing of offensive humor — its jokes about mentally challenged people already have sparked protests — Tropic Thunder should surpass both of those box offices grosses combined.

Movies like Tropic Thunder are made for people who know and care about Hollywood's pecking-order insecurities, how it justifies pandering for profit, and whispered disdain for junk-flicks. I'm one of those people, and I watched Tropic Thunder with a what-else-is-new smile throughout.

Director-writer-star Ben Stiller frontloads his movie with stuff outsiders will surely understand: a clever introduction to the main characters through faux preview trailers for their latest films. Action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller) made Scorcher VI with the same plot as the first five. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) stars in another fat-and-farting comedy. Australian star Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) plays a gay priest in Satan's Alley.

Then we get each actor's backstory. Speedman wants to be respected as a serious actor, Jeff is a heroin addict and Kirk is so intense that he alters his pigmentation to play an African-American. They've all signed on to make the movie-within-a-movie, Tropic Thunder.

The actors become stranded in a Vietnamese jungle, believing they're making a movie while heroin smugglers fire real bullets at them.

Downey's performance is one-note funny, a jab at Method actors in general and Russell Crowe in particular. The final reel is almost exclusively based on the notion of going too deep, losing yourself, and all that Inside the Actors Studio stuff. Black screams his way through various stages of jonesing and cold turkey.

While steeped in stereotypes, Downey's portrayal of a black man doesn't get a chance to offend. He's silly about it, and there's an African-American cast mate (Brandon T. Jackson) caustically calling his bluff.

Nobody in Tropic Thunder bristles on behalf of the mentally challenged people who are exploited in Tugg's failed Oscar vehicle, Simple Jack. Stiller affects a bad wig and teeth, slurred speech and spastic movements for the role, which becomes increasingly key to the final act. Kirk's lengthy monologue declaring Tugg went "full retard" with his performance, while Oscar winners don't go that far, is funny only if you don't care.

Tropic Thunder is better at portraying the morally challenged, especially a foul-mouthed studio executive whose Mephistophelean art of the deal, set to a hip-hop beat, is the film's finest, most insightful scene. What you'll remember about Tropic Thunder is that Tom Cruise is the funniest actor in it.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.

Tropic Thunder

Grade: B-

Director: Ben Stiller

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise

Screenplay: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen

Rating: R; strong violence, pervasive harsh profanity, drug content

Running time: 107 min.

An insider's joke 08/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 11:07am]
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