Ensemble comedies take many forms. Sometimes, assembling a bunch of stars into a laughfest yields a classic of Caddyshack proportions. Other examples, call them It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World types, can only prove that things must have been very different back then.
Years from now, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder, a farce about the doomed production of a Vietnam film, will probably be viewed like the latter. For now, however, armed to the teeth with stars and as many different styles of humor, it works occasionally enough to be an adequate end-of-summer buffer between box-office doldrums and all those fall vanity pictures it hopes to satirize.
Focused on the production of an Oscar-hopeful Vietnam film similar to Platoon, the movie is a broad, gentle caricature of over-the-top Hollywood clichés, reality-based or not, from explosive-crazed special-effects technicians to overacting genre stars and power-hungry executive producers. Stiller, who co-wrote, produced, and directed, plays a muscle-bound, Sylvester Stallone-type action star. Robert Downey Jr. is a versatile, heavyweight thespian from Down Under, who goes so far as to have a skin-tone operation so he can play an African-American role. Jack Black is on hand as a drug-addled star of silly summer comedies in the vein of The Nutty Professor, with a great deal of flatulence. Matthew McConaughey is Stiller's ardent but airheaded agent, and a virtually unrecognizable Tom Cruise is, get this, a ranting movie producer. Nick Nolte is the winner among the stars, in a fraudulent version of the gruff, bellicose type he's considered to be in real life.
Everyone involved pitches in with zeal, and Tropic Thunder has its moments of hilarity. One of the best is a soliloquy about going "full retard" when trying to win Oscar statues. The problem is that most of it is a familiar kind of silly, supercilious summer movie entirely convinced of its own merit, though often lacking originality. Stiller's clueless stud is especially stale, and one gets the feeling that nobody had the courage to point out to him or his buds that their production is guilty of many of the crimes and misdemeanors being lampooned. At least someone could have told them that Quentin Tarantino already did the fake trailer thing, and much better, last year with Grindhouse.
Tropic is more notable for its standout performances than for its ambitious vision. Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson provide nicely grounded anchors in the Stiller-Downey-Black platoon, and Danny McBride, seen lately in The Pineapple Express, is a likable pyrotechnics maniac who shows that even a redneck yahoo has a place on a film set. When not focused on McBride's travails with Nolte, most of Tropic is too surreal and close to home to be as much fun as intended. If one had to think of an equivalent, it's as if you opened The Wall Street Journal one day and found a tongue-in-cheek humor piece about CEOs swindling the middle class. Maybe this is Hollywood working out its guilty conscience. If so, here's to its success and some fresh ideas starting this fall.
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Written by: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Tom Cruise