War is hell-arious

At one point in “Tropic Thunder,” the new comedy from writer/director/star Ben Stiller, co-star Robert Downey Jr. plays and Australian Method actor portraying a black southern soldier pretending to be a humble Asian rice farmer.

And what’s Ms. Greatest Living Actor Today, Meryl Streep, doing in the next theater? Oh, that’s right. She’s working on her tan, kicking it in the Greek Isles and singing ABBA tunes.
Come Oscar time, if there is any justice, Downey would at least make the “For Your Consideration” rounds for his role as the uber-intense Kirk Lazarus.

Downey Jr. treats his high-wire performance with such dignity and devotion that he spends almost the entire film in blackface without once seeming condescending or racist.

But let us back up a bit, shall we?

“Thunder” is not only a scathing little indictment on the film industry, but, minute for minute, one of the funniest films released this year, overcoming the third-act slump that befalls so many big-budget comedies released today (I’m looking at you square in your bloodshot eyes, “Pineapple Express.”).

The film, centering around a bunch of whiny actors who sign on for an epic war movie, begins with a wonderfully ingenious way to give us all the back story we need about its leads.

Whatever you do, don’t arrive late to this movie. Three previews begin the film, one featuring past-his-prime action doll Tugg Speedman (Stiller) who’s milking his once-popular franchise, “Scorcher,” for its very last drops of testosterone. It’s a well that Speedman has reluctantly returned to after an ill-advised attempt for acting legitimacy while playing a mentally challenged man in “Simple Jack.”

It’s followed by “The Fatties,” a comedy in which its chubby trainwreck star, Jeff Portney (played by Jack Black), dons various fat suits for a number of roles as a flatulent family.

Rounding out the trio of trailers is a phony “prestige” picture, “Satan’s Alley,” starring five-time Academy Award-winning Lazurus as a monk who longs to taste the forbidden fruit of a fellow man of the cloth.

In that brief setup, we know all that is needed about the three main actors of “Tropic Thunder,” the name of a Vietnam opus in which each of the actors will share the screen for various career-enhancing reasons.

After a series of prissy meltdowns delays production, first-time director Damien Cockburn (played by Steve Coogan) is threatened by a maniacal producer who plans to abort the film altogether.

In a last-ditch effort he drops off the leads — with co-stars Alpa Chino (played by newcomer Brandon T. Jackson) and Kevin Sandusky (played by Jay Baruchel) — deep in the jungle leaving them to their own Blackberry-less, Tivo-less devices.

It’s a comedic plot that harkens back to “To Be or Not to Be,” with a lot of “Three Amigos” thrown in for good measure, but Stiller takes the time along the way to slaughter cow after sacred cinematic cow. “Thunder” has countless throwaway gags, none wearing out their welcome like the director sometimes did in his previous effort “Zoolander.” And when it’s not chucking those at the screen, a number of big-named actors whoop it up in secondary and cameo roles.

And while Stiller deserves credit for both crafting and capturing the film, it’s Downey Jr. who brings “Tropic’s” thunder.

It is a role that could have sunk the film faster than a “Soul Man” sequel, and required the utmost respect in its execution to avoid any hint of racist intent. But in an industry that celebrates the mere weight loss or gain actors undergo for a role just as much as performance itself, he captures the pomposity and disillusionment that some actors embrace for the sake of their “art” with equal amounts wit and warmth.

There are other surprise pop-up performances that, if you have not heard about yet, you should try to witness firsthand before receiving lame line-readings from friends.

There is no doubt “Thunder” steps over the line from time to time, but, like “Borat,” it’s still refreshing to witness a big studio comedy that is willing to stick it’s neck out once and a while for a funny, rather than resort to the toothless “yuks” from the wretched parodoic parasites like “Meet the Spartans” and its hell-spawn ilk.

Not since 1999’s “Bowfinger” has Hollywood taken such an intelligently staged skewering, and Stiller has returned to the same biting satiric edge he once sp gloriously displayed in his short-lived television show.

After seeing “Thunder,” it will be hard to hear the about the heavily supervised “hell” actors claim they undergo when prepping for a role without being reminded of one of Downey Jr.’s blisteringly amusing monologues of what it takes to earn one of those prestigious little statuettes Hollywood likes to hand out to one another at year’s end.

 

 

~ by usesoapfilm on August 19, 2008.

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