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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tropic Thunder

A year-and-a-half or so ago I wrote a review in which I referred to myself as “socially retarded” as in not up on to current fads and within a day I was on the receiving end of a storm of misplaced anger from the mother of a son with Down Syndrome who accused me of making cruel fun of people with disabilities. She was determined to have me fired from the newspaper that ran my column (I didn’t work for them and they didn’t) and from there she was personally determined to have me canned from the Essex Cinemas (another place I didn’t actually work). While I understood her sensitivity on the subject, I was certainly not using the word in a derogatory way meant to imply anything other than the word’s synonymous meaning, i.e., slow, and in reference to myself. Why, you may ask, am I unearthing this entire high-strung, if long ago, drama now? Well, all you have to do is spend five minutes watching Tropic Thunder and you’ll see why.

If the mother who wanted to have me beheaded for the innocent use of the word “retarded” (and I can’t help but wonder if she also writes nasty letters to fire extinguisher companies and children’s clothing manufacturers that promise that their products are ‘flame retardant’) were to stumble into Tropic Thunder I am certain her own head would surely explode. This satire on the Hollywood movie-making business is directed and co-written by, and stars Ben Stiller (The Heartbreak Kid) as movie actor Tugg Speedman, a perennial star of a series of moronic action movies Scorcher I – VI. In an attempt to break out of the genre, in his last movie Tugg played a developmentally challenged character in the same-titled film, Simple Jack, which was a commercial flop. His characterization, however, becomes a major topic of discussion amongst the actors/characters and becomes a significant plot point later on. It’s Stiller and company’s conversation that now has disability rights groups up in arms over their extensive comparison of “going half retard or full retard” as an actor in a movie and which is more likely to get one an Academy Award. Seriously. Or not so seriously, but that is the sort of tone this movie takes.


Also bound to have a lot of people’s pantaloons in a knot is Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) as Kirk Lazarus, a supposed five-time
Oscar winner, who is so high-brown that it is a wonder he would ever soil himself by agreeing to co-star in a movie with Speedman, but he was intrigued by the idea of transforming himself from a blond, blue-eyed Australian to an African American combat soldier in Tropic Thunder, the name of the movie-with-the movie, a Vietnam era war drama. That’s right. Lazarus supposedly undergoes a pigmentation darkening process for his role in the movie, and since he is a “Method” actor he never breaks character, driving the actual African American actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson; A Talent for Trouble), on the shoot crazy as Lazarus continually speaks from the heart about how “our people have been kept down by the white man for more than 400 years…” Here’s hoping there is either a whole lot of room on the picket line to accommodate everybody who is in a rage, or people are going to get the over-the-top tone of this whole thing.

It ought to be obvious that this is meant to be silly. The other lead is Jack Black (Kung Fu Panda),
for goodness sake. He plays Jeff Portnoy, a covert heroin-sniffing comedian, whose career is literally in the toilet as the star of a series of movies featuring Portnoy playing all members of “The Fatties” family, who seem to rely on nothing but fart jokes as their on-going content. For him, Tropic Thunder is a chance to make it off the C-List and become a real star.

Also making special appearances are the very hot right now Danny R. McBride (Pineapple Express) as the studio’s loose cannon explosives expert with a few screws of his own way too loose , Nick Nolte (The Spiderwick Chronicles) as the perhaps way-too-psycho author of the book on which the script for
Tropic Thunder was based, Matthew McConaughey (Fool’s Gold) as Rick Peck, Kirk’s kooky agent with a way over-the-top Tivo fixation, and an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise (as Studio CEO Les Grossman, who is definitely the most gross man of anybody on screen.

Cameos by Jon Voight, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Tyra Banks, Lance Bass, Maria Menounos, Jason
Bateman, and Alicia Silverstone as themselves also provide a further sense that all this insanity really is what Hollywood is actually like.

Make sure to get to the theater on time because some of
Tropic Thunder’s biggest laughs come before the credits even begin as there are faux previews for a bunch of non-existent movies that supposedly star the characters of Tropic Thunder in other roles. These are best fakes since Grindhouse and look for one very special cameo by Spiderman himself Tobey Maguire as a conflicted monk with a secret in one of those “sensitive” Ivory-Merchant types of films.

It’s crude, ridiculous, and sometimes downright infantile, but at other times it shows signs of brilliant tongue-in-cheek, nudge-you-in-the ribs folly that assumes the audience is clever enough to know the inside stories of the show biz industry and its flaws so that it will get the parody. Hopefully, they, and you will too. If so, you’ll laugh yourself silly.

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