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Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder, as a chain of mostly visual gags about Hollywood — self-absorbed actors, enabling agents, Satanic producers, sadistic fans, and and ludicrous tie-ins — can't be beat. Unencumbered by romantic commitments, the story barrels along through the canyons of the Vietnamese highlands and the Angeleno netherworld, powered by an amazing crew — fully the sum of its parts — of doubtlessly self-absorbed actors. (Actors can do anything.) It's the sort of cast that has never before been assembled except to make heist or war pictures. A sort of American correlative to Huit Femmes, it will make you ask of actors not on the roster, "Why wasn't he in it?"

Like François Ozon's picture, Tropic Thunder is a highly stylized send-up of at least two genres, and the unexpected juxtapositions are a big part of the fun. Supposedly a movie about the making of a movie about war, it turns into a movie about war when its bumbling action heroes step on the toes of a humorless drug-lord (who happens to be about ten years old). The action telescopes back and forth between the movie about war and the movie about the movie about war with lubricated ease: the characters may be confused, but the audience never is. Virtuoso film-making, however, is not only the point but the alpha and the omega of the enterprise. Like Huit Femmes, Tropic Thunder promises to make fun of anyone who cares too much about these colorful characters. As an American film, it is silly rather than brittle, but it is just as chilled.

What will keep Tropic Thunder in front of audiences is its collection — under one bigtop, as it were — of star turns. Even if he were not the director and a co-writer, Ben Stiller would deserve honorable mention for his performance as a fading star with a rather shakier grasp of his plight than Woody, in Toy Story; but Robert Downey Jr and Tom Cruise share top marks for their amazing drag acts. Now that we are all used to the sight of men dressing up stilettos, fishnets, and corsets in order to lip-synch torch songs (or not, like Chiwetel Ejiofor's wonderful chantootsie in Kinky Boots, who does her own singing), we're hungry for new transgressions, and it's hard to say whether Mr Downey, in updated blackface, or Mr Cruise, in backdated yidface, is more staggeringly, offensively funny. (Mr Cruise's drag is actually a full-body thing, involving a great deal of non-cranial hair.) Why would one of Hollywood's most famously boyish-handsome actors be called upon to look nasty — and not attractively, reptilian-handsome nasty, either? How could the responsible parties permit Mr Downey to carry on like a veteran of blaxploitation pictures? No matter. They're up there on the screen doing their thing, and it is breathtakingly, hysterically wrong. You expect the police to raid the theatre.

Mention must also be made of the two co-stars, Jay Baruchel and Brandon T Jackson, who play the two co-stars. They've been given very good parts. Kevin Sandusky (Mr Baruchel) is an actor who actually knows a few things about the real world; keenly aware that he's the only guy for miles who does, Kevin stands in for everyone who has had to endure the tragicomedy of being surrounded by idiots. Alpa Chino (Mr Jackson) is also smart, although more as an entrepreneur than as a world traveler, and his outrage at the imposture of Kirk Lazarus (Mr Downey) is finely banked. "What do you mean, 'You people'?" is the the sharpest line in the movie.

Amidst all of this furious acting, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Nick Nolte all do commendable jobs of playing the sorts of roles for which they are well-known. Danny McBride, whose gifts as a supporting actor recall the great days of Horton, Blore, and Pangborn, just lets it rip. (August 2008)

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