Monday, August 03, 2009

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Everyone thinks that the best makeup job of 2008 was transforming Robert Downey, Jr. into a black guy in “Tropic Thunder,” and I have to admit that the effect is impressive. Honorable Mention, however, has to go to whomever turned Tom Cruise into the slightly bloated, bald, foul-mouthed movie producer Les Grossman. The movie was halfway over before I realized that was Tom Cruise. Maybe it’s just that I couldn’t see well through all the tears of laughter. “Tropic Thunder” is hilarious from the first shot, and your face WILL hurt from laughing by the end.

The movie is about the attempt to make a movie called “Tropic Thunder,” an effects-driven, blood-soaked cliché of a Vietnam movie. The would-be drama features an ensemble of self-absorbed actors: fading action star Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller), fart-joke comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon Jackson), unknown Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), and serious method-actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr. in incredibly convincing blackface.) The production is plagued with accidents and budget overruns, Apocalypse-Now-style, partly because of the diva behavior of its stars. Desperate to make a realistic movie, the director decides to plant his actors deep in the jungle with nothing but a map and blank-firing weapons, and film them guerilla-style. Unfortunately, the jungle is full of actual guerillas, heroin producers who add a great deal of realism to the experience.

Robert Downey, Jr. can’t possibly get enough credit for this role, playing Kirk Lazarus, a white guy who undergoes “a controversial skin-darkening procedure” in order to play a black character. He starts out extremely convincing, but the more he is ridiculed and challenged by Alpa Chino (actually black), the thinner his charade grows, until finally he is reduced to quoting the Jefferson’s theme song (“Movin’ on Up”) as a source of wisdom. He stubbornly stays in character even when it becomes apparent that they are no longer filming a movie and just need to get out of the jungle alive. As Lazarus puts it, “I don’t break character until the DVD commentary is done.” This was obviously a risky career move for Downey. I don’t think anyone has worn blackface since 1986, when C. Thomas Howell darkened up to get a Harvard scholarship in “Soul Man.” Downey plays the whole thing perfectly, giving Kirk Lazarus just enough of the ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, Ben Stiller’s Tug is pitch-perfect as well. He is a Vin Diesel-esque action star with a fading franchise and a misplaced desire to be a serious actor. He wants to adopt a southeast Asian orphan, but says “It seems like all the good ones are taken.”

The best way to sum up “Tropic Thunder” is Over-The-Top, but in this case I mean that in a good way. The film starts out with a gargantuan level of hilarity and manages to maintain that level to the hilarious end. I strongly recommend it, and I strongly recommend emptying your bladder before watching.

4.5 stars

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