August 14, 2008

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Tropic Thunder (R)
Hollywood satire, action movie parody and wonderfully imaginative profanity come together to create Tropic Thunder, the most soda-shoots-out-your-nose funny movie this summer.

We meet the stars in “pre-movie” “previews.” Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is walking that marvelous line between starring in a horribly misogynistic hip-hop video and using his song as a commercial for his energy drink, Booty Sweat. In an action movie “preview,” we see the latest film from the Die-Hardest-ish Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a sequel to many sequels wherein he must save the Earth again, again. In a trailer for a comedy suspiciously similar to too many Eddie Murphy movies, Jeff “Fats” Portnoy (Jack Black) plays multiple latexed roles, each one huge-er and more flatulent. And then there’s Oscar-caliber Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), who in his trailer is a medieval priest lusting with Oscar- caliber glances at another medieval priest. (The way actual good actor Downey portrays the “I’m a thespian”-ness, the Inside the Actor’s Studio-like pretension of “actoriness” is itself actually rather Oscar-worthy, or would be if big- budget comedies won Oscars.)

In “real” life, of course, Alpa is all about the marketing, Fats is a heroin addict, Kirk is a fabulously self-absorbed, vaguely Russell Crowe-ish Serious Actor. Tugg might actually be dumber than the titular character in Simple Jack, a “serious drama” he starred in in an attempt to also seem like an Important Actor. The four come together for a movie about the Vietnam War, one based on the memoir by grizzled vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte, at his grizzled Noltest). It is such a prized production that method-acting-enthusiast Lazarus even had his skin surgically altered so he could convincingly (or, I should say, “convincingly”) play a black solider, much to the disgust of actual African American Alpa Chino.

But the movie goes way way over budget and director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is at risk of being shut down by the studio. His solution? Follow Four Leaf’s suggestion and take the actors out into the jungle with nothing but hidden cameras, explosives expert Cody (Danny McBride) and the hope that genuine fear will help squeeze a good movie out of these preening pampered stars. Of course, the jungle isn’t just an empty soundstage and soon actual baddies are chasing these prop-gun-carrying actors way off script.

Back up there when I explained the trailer-style set-up to this movie, I have to admit that that is pretty much the point at which I decided this was the funniest movie I’d seen so far this year, possibly the funniest since I was laughing ’til I cried over Knocked Up, possibly funnier. The rest of the movie reinforced that opinion — from the fast-talking agent played by Matthew McConaughey to what might be the greatest Tom Cruise role ever, particularly in its final moments. (Do not leave the theater early.) Downey is perfect, whether he is doing Lazarus’ off-screen shtick as an actor so stuck in character that he can’t stop talking like Redd Foxx circa Sanford and Son or “on-screen” actually giving one of his “just the cheese side of good” performances. Stiller is excellent as a parody of, not only action stars, but also himself. (If anyone knows what it’s like to be typecast…) And, well, did I mention Tom Cruise? Once your eyes find him on screen you will not be able to look away. He’s hypnotic and perversely awesome.

This doesn’t even get to the smaller but strong performances of Black, Jackson, Nolte and McBride. Or the one line from an Extra anchor that still has me laughing when I think of it. Or the most terrifying example of community theater ever.

Tropic Thunder is a piñata full of delightfully hilarious moments that is smashed open in the film’s first seconds and continues to rain down on you for the entire nearly two hours. Bring a friend; you might need some help getting up when all that laughter causes you to roll onto the floor. A

Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. Directed by Ben Stiller and written by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, Tropic Thunder is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by DreamWorks SKG.