“Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, 'Rain Man,' look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic, sho'. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, 'Forrest Gump.' Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded. Peter Sellers, "Being There." Infantile, yes. Retarded, no. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, "I Am Sam." Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed.”
-- “Tropic Thunder” controversial speech
“Tropic Thunder,” the movie critics darling from the summer of 2008, suffers from the massive sin of being slightly amusing and painfully disappointing (once you've seen the trailer there's no reason to see the rest).
Critics drooled all over it because Director Ben Stiller skewers Hollywood insiders and there’s nothing that movie critics fawn over more than a movie that savages directors, actors, agents, and filmmaking (because they all secretly hate the business). Besides, the critics can actually understand the in-jokes.
The movie was a huge marketing success – web sites, viral videos, and a massive push by “insiders.” It raked in more than $110 million to qualify for blockbuster status. The hype was that “Tropic Thunder” was raw and controversial (mental health advocates gave the film an enormous boost when they protested against the depiction of mentally-handicapped people in the film).
Unfortunately, “Tropic Thunder” is an overhyped dud done in by alame plot, variety show quality gags, and the seriously defective acting of one Ben Stiller. And the supposedly no-holds barred gags? Saturday Night Live is more controversial.
Here’s the concept: a group of self-absorbed A-list actors are filming a Vietnam movie. Losing control of the movie, the director decides to take his pampered actors into jungle for some guerilla filming. A landmine kills the director and the actors – left on their own – are attacked by real drug-dealing rebels (and think the action is part of the script).
The plot, of course, only works if the characters are idiots – which they are. Stiller has the acting range of a turnip. Like his character in “Zoolander,” who uses the same pursed-lip expression in all of his photo shoots, Stiller plays the same character over and over and over again. He’s the Groundhog Day of actors. This time Stiller plays washed up action star Tugg Speedman (a cross between Rambo and Tom Cruise). He’s hopelessly insecure and utters dialog like: “Somebody said they were close to me?” And, of course, he pouts like only Stiller can pout.
Every time Stiller is on screen is a grating experience. You want to scream: “Stop the madness!” at the top of your lungs.
Robert Downey Jr. fairs better as the Oscar winning method actor Kirk Lazarus. Lazarus has a skin pigmentation process so he can play a black sergeant – and is completely in-character throughout the film. Unfortunately, the role limits Downey’s maniac comedic skills – and he ends up being a one-trick pony. The gag is funny – for about five minutes.
Then there is Jack Black, who is completely wasted as the drug-addicted “fat” comedian. The role is a cliché wrapped in a stereotype and delivered as a typecast. He actually bites a bat in half because it “stole” his drugs and is thrown half-naked over a water buffalo. Cheap gimmickry at its finest.
But the real problem with “Tropic Thunder” is the stupidity of the plot. Nothing makes sense. Once the actors get in the jungle, the film plays like a series of skits cobbled together with duct tape. It’s hard to watch without that sinking feeling in your belly that you have been duped.
The real pain here?
“Topic Thunder” was so successful that it will probably spawn a sequel.