Stiller's un-PC comedy is a little too unfunny -- 2 stars
Directed by Ben Stiller. August 2008, USA. R: 107 min.
(Originally published in buzz magazine on 8-16-08)
Despite Tropic Thunder’s annoying tendency to beat us with the same jokes until they’re not funny any more, I have to admit one thing: Ben Stiller’s new action/comedy has a lot of balls.
Tropic Thunder follows the filming of a Vietnam War movie based on a book by haggard armed services vet Four Leaf (Nick Nolte), produced by the irate, money-grubbing Les Grossman (a bald, fat-suited Tom Cruise) and directed by Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), a rookie pushover from Great Britain. Their all-star cast features past-his-prime action-man Tugg Speedman (Stiller), fart comedian and “jelly bean” addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), dirty rapper and Booty Sweat energy drink entrepreneur Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as an unremarkable throwaway character and — the performance everyone and their unemployed uncle is talking about — Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), joining the shameful tradition of white actors portraying harmful stereotypes in blackface. When Cockburn discovers the A-list fivesome lacks chemistry, Four Leaf suggests they transport the prima donna troupe to an isolated location in the jungle and freak them out with rigged explosives to get them into character. This mission goes FUBAR in a hurry, and the actors find themselves antagonized by a preteen drug lord and his personal army of guerrillas. His first writing/directing/acting project since the fashionably silly Zoolander (2001) is winning over critics at the same time it alienates large groups of people, particularly those with mental disabilities. The Special Olympics and Down Syndrome Association have already spoken out against characters’ repetitive use of the word “retard” when referring to Speedman’s title role in the melodramatic tearjerker Simple Jack.
My gripe with Thunder is not its offensive humor; the naughty comedy points a critical finger at Hollywood’s transgressions. If handled better, it could have been brilliant slice of metacinema, but the script’s sloppy synthesis of overdone jokes ruins the experience. Sure, I laughed at Stiller’s satire of racism, misogynism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a whole slew of other phobias and isms — at first. After awhile, though, the comedic spark burnt out, and, much like Speedman and his acting colleagues, the cast didn’t work well together.
But don’t take my word for it. I must be alone in my thinking that Pineapple Express was much better; practically every critical publication except the New York Times and the Village Voice touted Tropic Thunder it as this summer’s best comedy. Go figure.