Ben Stiller’s spoof of war movies is–without doubt–the summer’s funniest comedy.
Following the usual “Coming Attractions,” there are four bogus movie trailers, introducing washed-up action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), grossed-out comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and the five-time Oscar-winning Aussie, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.).
Along with newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), they’ve been cast in a Vietnam War picture based on a “true” story by John “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte), who serves as technical advisor. When filming bogs down and they’re reamed out by the venal studio boss, Lee Grossman (Tom Cruise), the desperate British director (Steve Coogan) decides to drop these pampered, self-indulgent celebrities deep in the jungle–without cellphones or assistants–hoping that hidden surveillance cameras will capture their terror, accentuated by a trigger-happy explosions expert (Danny McBride). But drug-dealing guerrillas are lurking nearby–and things go horribly wrong, much to the dismay of Speedman’s agent (Matthew McConaughey).
What’s hilarious are the smarmy characters. Downey’s absurdly serious Lazarus is so devoted to his craft that he darkens his skin pigment to play an African-American, which understandably riles Alpa Chino (say it aloud). Stiller’s Speedman skewers Sean Penn’s “I Am Sam” and Black’s Portnoy is a drug addict. Best of all, Cruise is almost unrecognizable as the bald, paunchy, power-crazed exec whose nasty cynicism is relieved only by his dance moves; it’s “Risky Business”-meets-“Magnolia.”
Written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Coen, the acerbic script is not only politically incorrect but also relentlessly vulgar as it ridicules cinematic cliche. The only weak point is Stiller’s uneven direction, reminiscent of “Zoolander.” On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Tropic Thunder” is an audacious 8, sending up Hollywood egos.