Moment of Truth #293: Tropic Thunder
The art, craft and business of making movies is so far removed from the wonderful illusions it conjures upon the screen that it’s no small wonder Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself. Movies about Hollywood can be so self-referential that they amount to an elaborate inside joke told with all of the social grace of friends who whisper secrets among themselves at a dinner party. But sometimes they are self-aware enough to lay bare the weirdness of Tinseltown as well as address the long-running concerns most of us have that movies might be great, but the people who make them are probably whackos, monsters, or both. To that end, we got what might be one of the best lampoons of Hollywood’s myriad excesses: Tropic Thunder.
Tugg Speedman was once the world’s top-grossing action movie star, but his signature franchise has flamed out and a string of box office bombs have put him in desperate search of a hit to revitalize his career. Thus he finds himself on the set of Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam epic based off of war hero “Four Leaf” Tayback’s wartime memoir. Alongside Speedman is five-time Academy Award method-actor Kirk Lazarus, drug-addicted gross-out comedian Jeff Portnoy, overcompensating rapper and product frontman Alpa Chino, and rookie actor Kevin Sandusky (who appears to be the only guy on the set with even a shred of professionalism). With the movie behind schedule and wildly over budget, studio executive Les Grossman instructs Tropic Thunder’s overwhelmed director Damien Cockburn to get things under control, pronto. So Cockburn does the worst thing possible: drops the cast in the middle of the jungle equipped with hidden cameras and makes them find their way back to civilization to give the project a little cinéma vérité. But things immediately go sideways as Speedman and company find themselves in the middle of Golden Triangle, locking horns with the infamous heroin cartel Flaming Dragon. Will our heroes get out alive? Will Speedman finally get a hit? Will Portnoy survive withdraws? Will Lazarus get his sixth Oscar being the dude who plays a dude who thinks he’s another dude? The answers don’t matter. What does is that it’s never been more enjoyable watching a bunch of guys think that they might not make it out of the jungle alive.
This movie is such a complete sendup of Hollywood’s sacred cows that it’s hard to know where to begin listing them. From the opening faux movie trailers to the tragicomic archetypes played by the cast to the sniper-accurate commentary on movie-making missteps, Tropic Thunder is practically a documentary. It’s so meta that even its jokes are about own its own jokes—the marketing collateral for the movie itself are basically just more scenes beyond the fourth wall. Case in point: Robert Downey, Jr. plays a ridiculously focused method actor who is obsessed with winning another Academy Award, and Downey does such a stellar job at it that he got his own Academy Award nomination. (But not before Dreamworks submitted Kirk Lazarus’s performance for consideration, too.) Such is the kind of exquisite rabbit hole that is Tropic Thunder. It’s plenty funny on its own, but the more you love the movies, the funnier it gets.
Its best humor is also its most daring. The movie caught flak both for its portrayals of the mentally handicapped and for its use of blackface, the kinds of things that, taken out of context, are the kinds of things that get a movie picketed. But given how well those aspects are executed within Tropic Thunder, one wonders if maybe they were included as part of yet another meta-joke in a movie already filled with them. Probably not, but with this movie, it gets hard to tell.
Like any Hollywood satire, this one is filled with almost too many A-listers to mention. But rather than feel like a kind of ensemble victory lap, the various bit players all know how to fill their spot in the background while the leading actors are given the room they need to prove why they are, in fact, A-listers. It’s a collective effort that works well enough to support a movie that otherwise would have surely collapsed under the weight of itself. And there we go again, admiring a movie’s casting and narrative structure when it features insane pyrotechnic stunts fired off by a guy shouting “Big-ass titties!” Sure. Okay. Whatever.
The only thing close to peak point in this movie is the degree to which Downey steals the show as a guy so dedicated to his craft that he undergoes experimental skin pigmentation alteration to undertake the most ambitious case of acting in blackface ever. That Downey does it with such a straight face, all while lampooning his own character is a work of sublime comedy. It’s not supposed to be his movie, but how could be anything but?
The real gem of this diamond mine, though, is its moment of truth, in which Tom Cruise storms in as Les Grossman, a hyper-alpha movie producer fluent in profanity, Diet Coke, threats of violence and little else. His signature scene in which he gets on the horn with the Flaming Dragon guerrillas who kidnapped his cast is an outburst of such verbal ferocity that it probably has been specifically listed by the Geneva Conventions as an illegal act of war. By the time the scene is over, you feel like you’ve been hit by a tactical nuke. You’re left trying to understand what is the best part of Grossman’s ultra-alpha monologue: the monologue itself, the fact that Cruise threw himself into such an against-type role with the same dedication that made him learn how to fly helicopters for other movies, or that he specifically had his character be bald so he would more closely resemble a giant penis. Trick question. The answer is yes.