You ever looked at Heart of Darkness, not the novel but the documentary about making Apocalypse Now, and think but what if it were a comedy? If the answer is no, then you’re clearly most people and not Ben Stiller. Props to Ben Stiller for deciding to take the piss out of the entire construct of prestige projects, auteurs, and ego-centric actors with Tropic Thunder.
It’s an entertaining 107 minutes, one that hurls a string of jokes at you, most of which land, and then rolls off into the credits happy to have entertained. It has no grander ambitions and thank god for that. It’s fun to watch Ben Stiller play a movie star trying to go serious, and perhaps a bit uncomfortably reflective at points given how he’s forsaken these types of films in favor of smaller scale character dramas lately. Same goes for Jack Black playing a comic actor big on fart humor not only trying to go serious but dealing with a massive heroin addiction that leads to some…unique verbal diatribes.
It’s at its zenith when it sits back and lets Robert Downey Jr. rip into overly Method-y actor types, like the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who torture and contort themselves for their art and begin to believe the fantasy is real. His character is a tightrope here, at once a joke about overly serious/earnest artistic types and essentially appearing in blackface. That last bit is baked into the film’s humor and treated with appropriate derision and lampoonery, mainly by a rapper-turned-actor dubbed Alpa Cino (Brandon T. Jackson). 2008 was a glorious return to form for Downey Jr. as an actor, between this and Iron Man, and a reminder of what a great comedic actor he can be when allowed to rapid-fire dialogue and find the truth in the absurdity. I’m sure he had plenty of ammo after working with Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Still, comedy is hard to maintain for a prolonged period of time, and Tropic Thunder’s eventual concession to make goods, happy endings, and brotherly bonds deflates some of its sharper critiques. This is a movie that opens with Stiller’s character being rightly chastised and spoofed for a poorly made film about a disabled character in a clear bid for artistic credibility and awards, then ends with his receiving those exact things. Tropic Thunder wants to have its cake and eat it too, as if it were afraid to maintain its savage tone for too long.
Or the egos got brittle and in the way. They needed some soothing after the lashing they’d been receiving. It’s not earned and ends the film on a curious note after what was a lively, raucous glimpse at actorly self-absorption and a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise going beyond “ham” and into something far bigger, broader, and stranger. It can’t dilute the comedic might of what came before, but it’s an unsatisfying climax.