"Tropic Thunder" is a satire, or to be exact, a spoof, about the movie business. Of course, Hollywood does a pretty good job of satirizing itself even when playing it straight.
The premise behind "Tropic Thunder," which was directed and co-written by Ben Stiller, who also stars, is promising. A Vietnam war epic shot in Southeast Asia spins out of control when its harried director (Steve Coogan), trying for guerrilla-style "realism," leads his cast and crew deep into the jungles and ends up confronting some unamused drug lords.
The war movie's cast includes a prime crop of prima donnas. Stiller's Tugg Speedman is an action-movie superstar who is just coming off a colossal flop in which he played a mentally challenged hayseed named Simple Jack. Jeff Portnoy (a blond Jack Black), is the star of a gross-out comedy franchise called "The Fatties." Now he wants to be taken seriously as an actor. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Aussie with five Oscar wins to his credit, is playing a black sergeant. In true Method fashion, he dyes his skin black, kinks his hair, and goes full out for Ebonics.
Back in Hollywood, the studio chief in charge of the production – played by Tom Cruise in prosthetic makeup that makes him look like a refugee from "The Fatties" – is in perpetual high dudgeon.
The motivating idea behind "Tropic Thunder" is simple: Being in a war film is not the same thing as being in a real war. At its simplest level, then, "Tropic Thunder" is about the silliness of performers who complain about movie boot camp. So far so good. But when the soldier-actors face a real drug-manufacturing army in the Golden Triangle, Stiller's high concept dips low.
Biting as it tries to be, "Tropic Thunder" is mostly toothless. Its targets – Hollywood vanity, Hollywood tantrums – are easy hits. Imagine if, for example, Stiller had staged his war epic not in Vietnam but in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan. The ghastliness of playacting a real-war scenario would have been brought out in full force.
By making fun of the histrionics of movies like "Platoon," Stiller comes dangerously close to making fun of actual soldiers from an actual war. When we watch an over-the-top performer being blown up in "Tropic Thunder," we may want to laugh, but – and this is an unintended consequence – the laughter catches in our throat. Or at least it did in mine. Stiller doesn't have the ability, or perhaps ambition, to make the kind of black comedy that would turn our laughter back upon itself.
The one exception to this is Downey's performance as Kirk Lazarus. Can it really be that, with Obamamania in full cry, we now have the hottest actor of the hour in blackface? Relax. What Downey is doing is making fun of actors who go to absurd lengths to achieve "realism." (My favorite anecdote along these lines is from the set of "Marathon Man," where, upon learning that his costar Dustin Hoffman went sleepless for days to prepare for a scene, Laurence Olivier responded, "Dear boy, have you tried acting?")
Kirk's hip-hop patois makes him seem doubly foolish. Stiller includes an actual black actor in the troupe (Brandon T. Jackson) to deride Kirk, but this reads like a cop-out. The film would have been more daring if we had been allowed to supply our own derision. Downey throws the black stereotypes of pop culture in our face and makes us see them once again for what they are. And yet, there's great affection in his portrayal. Kirk is, first and last, an actor, and his follies, however misguided, are part of the craft. Downey's performance isn't just a slam at his profession, it's a valentine.
The same cannot really be said for the sequences in which Stiller is shown playing Simple Jack, described in the film as a "retard." Disabilities groups have threatened a boycott over this characterization and, while I think that's going too far, it's understandable there would be outrage. Unlike the blackface portrayal, this one has no reason for being except goofball yucks.
"Tropic Thunder" passes for "daring" in a movie era notably short on risk-taking. In the case of Downey, that daring is earned. Otherwise, we're watching a Hollywood satire that, in the end, is more Hollywood than satire. Grade: B(Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, and drug material.)