The genre of parody films has been around for a while. In my opinion, parodies can be some of the most fun movies to see. Most of them are “critic-proof.” They aren’t about the story, characters, or even performances, mostly. They are about satirizing movies and they are judged on how well they do it. Parody films go back to the Mel Brooks films of the ‘70s (High Anxiety, Blazing Saddles). However, the success of one movie, Airplane!, caused an uproar where many filmmakers tried to satirize different film genres. However, now that Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are on this planet (Meet the Spartans, anyone?), it’s more of a formula. Don’t get me wrong. It was a formula, then, too, but it is more so now and less clever. One of the more original and clever parody films of recent years is the 2008 film, Tropic Thunder.
Tropic Thunder revolves around a group of actors, Tugg Speedman, Kirk Lazarus, Alpa Chino (get it?), Jeff Portnoy, and Kevin Sandusky, who are in a Vietnam War film, based on a memoir. The director of this film claims that it will be the most expensive war film ever made. However, the actors are egotistic prima donnas and production is one month behind schedule. After the film is threatened with cancellation if production doesn’t get back on track, the director decides to put these actors in a real battle-like situation. However, the actors think that it is actually part of the movie and many crazy situations ensue, including one of the actors being captured by a heroin manufacturing company that happens to be a big fan of the actor.
Right from the beginning, you know that this is going to be something special. It begins with an ad for Booty Sweat Energy Drink. Then, it shows us trailers for films with titles like, Scorched VI: Global Meltdown, The Fatties: Fart Two, and Satan’s Alley. This is one of the better parody films in quite a while. Most films parody certain films or genres. This film, brilliantly, parodies Hollywood in general. Also, if you think about it, it starts out kind of like a mockumentary version of the documentary, Hearts of Darkness, about Francis Ford Coppola directing Apocalypse Now. The opening of this film is the director trying to make this great war film and complications ensue. Also, I thought of the jungle stuff like a live-action version of the 2005 animated film Ben Stiller was in called Madagascar, in the way that it is about people taken out of their normal, comfortable environment and transported somewhere else. ALSO, I thought of the film as, partly, a parody of found footage films like, The Blair Witch Project, in the sense that it’s people being put in situations and a movie is based around that. Ben Stiller, who proves to be just as talented a director as he is an actor, directed the film. The cinematography for the film is bright, crisp and, for a comedy, shockingly beautiful.
The casting is dead-on perfect. Ben Stiller is very funny as Tugg Speedman, the cynical, somewhat neurotic, action star, as is Jack Black as Jeff Portnoy, the drug-addicted comedian. Also, like the best comedies out there, there is a great supporting troupe. Jay Baruchel of How to Train Your Dragon and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice fame is overshadowed, but is very good as a newcoming actor, Kevin Sadunsky, Brandon T. Jackson is funny as Alpa Chino, a rapper who has a deep secret, Danny McBride is very funny as the pyrotechnics operator, and Nick Nolte is very good as John “Four Leaf” Tayback, the man whose memoir the movie within the movie is based on. He is an armless Vietnam War veteran. Or is he? My favorite in the movie was an unrecognizable Tom Cruise as Les Grossman, the cynical studio executive, who brings such intensity to his role and delivers some of the funniest lines. There are more celebrity roles and cameos, but I won’t bore anymore with those. You can see the film for yourself.
Of course, the stand out of the film is Robert Downey, Jr. as Kirk Lazarus.
He scored two big hits in 2008 with this film and Iron Man and, call me crazy, I think this is best of those two roles. What is amazing about him is how audacious his role is and how committed he is. The character is an African-American and since Robert Downey, Jr. is Caucasian, the role could’ve been stereotypical and even offensive to African Americans (*insert Soul Plane joke here*). However, he plays it straight and, not once, is the joke based around the fact that a white guy is playing a black guy. The joke is how committed actors can be when it comes to playing their role. That’s a lot funnier. And the fact that he is playing an Academy Award winning actor makes the role even juicier. In fact, there were times where I thought that Robert Downey, Jr. was an African-American.
However, there is another star that should be mention: the acerbic and very funny script written by Ben Stiller (go figure), Etan Cohen (not to be confused with Ethan Cohen), and Justin Theroux (the lucky b*****d who went out with Jennifer Aniston). They have an ear for dialogue and a somewhat bittersweet attitude toward the movies. This movie references many, many movies, but unlike Doogal, which I reviewed a while back, the references actually have insight and are not just for a cheap laugh. There is, even, small talk that references and satirizes movie trends and even the DVD industry. One of my favorite jokes revolves around a fictional film that Ben Stiller’s character made called Simple Jack, a movie about a mentally challenged character, to which Robert Downey, Jr. gives some helpful advice to Ben Stiller. The dialogue is intelligent and rings true because some of the dialogue features the same attitude we reflect about the movies. Of course, you know that if a satire on Hollywood is made, the cruel side of it will be brought in. It is, but it is smart and, once again, rings true.
Also, for a comedy that isn’t a buddy cop film, I was surprised by the well-choreographed action sequences, especially near the end. In fact, I was surprised how graphic this film got at times. There are two really gory moments that may provoke disgust from the viewer. The R rating is well deserved (MPAA, you finally got one right). My only gripe with the film, though, is that the pacing could’ve been a tad bit better, but that is a small complaint for this piercingly sharp comedy.
On a scale of zero to four stars, Tropic Thunder gets a high three and a half stars! By the way, if anyone out there has a copy of Simple Jack, could I borrow it please?