Stiller has set out to skewer a slew of cultural icons.

Tropic Thunder

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            “Tropic Thunder” roars into the theater in a mass of Hollywood blood and gore. A soldier tries to stuff his own innards back into the cavity from which they came. Another soldier is shot through the head and a relentless spurt of blood spouts through the hole in his helmet like a can of warm coke opened too fast on a hot summer day. These are actors making a war movie on location in Vietnam, and Ben Stiller has set out to skewer a slew of cultural icons.

            Everything in Stiller’s movie is deliberately fake, and wickedly sophisticated. Is he attacking icons and beliefs or the people who traffic in them? You may cringe as Stiller punctures death and dying in wartime, phony authors (Nick Nolte as Four Leaf Tayback), nasty Hollywood producers (Tom Cruise as Les Grossman), retarded people like Simple Jack (Ben Stiller, now and then), and the pretensions of the Academy Awards. He mocks Hollywood’s pride in using raw movie language by inundating us in it; and he mocks the flaws of self-absorbed actors in moments like the one where Jack Blacks’s Porto begs to be tied to a tree for drug withdrawal – no twelve step programs for him; and he has the wonderful Robert Downey Jr.’s Australian actor undergo “pigmentation augmentation” to better equip him for his role as an American black man.

            In a supreme mockery of Hollywood endings, Stiller the actor undergoes a marvelous twist of personality that ignites an eruption of laughter in the audience. In a sharp puncture of pretension, he calls up the jungle headquarters of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” by creating a jungle stockade under the harsh rule of a child tyrant.

            Quite slowly we realize that Stiller’s is no ordinary attack on political correctness. Each actor he uses to deliver the blows in the film within the film is close to an empty vessel himself. He stabs directors by beheading one. Jack Black’s Portnoy is a drug addict, Stiller’s Tugg Speedman, a failed actor, Nick Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback, a fraud, and Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus, a testament to insecurity. Watch for a superb bit of film criticism, Downey to Stiller, in mid-jungle warfare.

            Stiller is posing the big question to his actors: do you know who you are? By targeting disability, Hollywood, fraud, awards, lackeys, and the military that give them their roles, he answers the question with a resounding “No.” Their true natures are revealed under the pressure of the actual warfare they encounter by mistake. It’s the actors vs. the drug lords of the jungle in a wave of revelation.

Who has the most fun in all this sarcasm? As Les Grossman, the power hungry stateside producer of the film within, Tom Cruise creates a paunchy bald Jewish Hollywood producer – a slimeball prejudiced against nearly everything but money. In a fine surprise during his unexpected performance we learn that Tom can dance. Stay for the credits; this man’s got rhythm.


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