Continuing with my series about what’s good in modern life….About two months ago, I watched a DVD a kindly publicist had sent me of a 2008 movie called “Tropic Thunder, Director’s Cut.” I knew nothing about it at all, except that it was something to do with the Vietnam War. From the first instant, it was hysterically funny, wildly politically incorrect, and devastatingly insightful about how Hollywood works.
The story is basically that a British director and his foul-mouthed bullying studio boss are trying to make a Vietnam war movie, loosely patterned after various Rambo movies. The stars are a group of “famous” actors — Brandon Jackson, who plays a hip-hop star making his acting debut, with the insanely brilliant name of Alpa Chino; Robert Downey, Jr., in blackface, playing a veteran Army sergeant; also extremely foul-mouthed; Jack Black, playing a flatulent comedy star, also very dirty mouthed; and the main star, Ben Stiller, a Sly Stallone look-alike, who thinks he is calling the shots in the movie but really isn’t. Then there are Nick Nolte, a bogus Vietnam vet-author, and a pyromaniac special effects and explosives co-coordinator played perfectly by Danny McBride.
Now, I will cut right to the chase and say that Tropic Thunder may well be the funniest movie since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It is subtle, insightful, unpredictable, and filled with action. The first twenty minutes or so in particular are so packed with action and genius that they may well be as good as the first twenty minutes of any comedy ever. There never has been a better comedy script than the one given us by Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux. It is a truly a work of staggering brilliance.
To get back to the acting, the role played by Matthew McConaughey as Ben Stiller’s agent is brilliantly done, done with such extraordinary intelligence that it baffles me how anyone could get it down so well. Bill Hader of Saturday Night Live who plays the studio boss’s flunky is simply unparalleled in his role as perfect ass kisser and yes man. Steve Coogan makes the most expressive faces I have ever seen in a comedy, especially in an unimaginably funny scene between him and Nick Nolte, who plays his role as well as any role he has played since Who’ll Stop The Rain.
Jay Baruchel, a young Canadian who plays a novice actor in the group, belittled by the others until they need him, is fantastically good. (He is about to become a BIG comedy star.)
The Asian “villains,” actually a lot less horrible than the Hollywood people, led by a young kid named Brandon Soo-Hoo and his top deputy, Reggie Lee, are just a scream.
Even smaller parts such as an unidentified blonde girl who plays Steve Coogan’s assistant and makes hilarious faces and a man who plays the key grip magnificently, and go-go dancer named Becca Sweitzer, who sets a perfect tone for the beginning of the movie, are deeply memorable. Christine Taylor, Stiller’s real life wife and a raving beauty, has a jewel of a cameo.
But the movie is simply stolen by Tom Cruise. He plays Les Grossman, horribly bullying studio head, with as dirty a mouth as anyone in history. In every scene where he appears — and his makeup and hair people, Michele Burke and Barney Burman, should get fifty Oscars — he blows the roof right off of the room.
Now, I knew he was a great actor since he appeared in Taps years ago, decades ago. And I knew he had gotten better over the years from his amazing turn in Valkyrie. But his performance in Tropic Thunder and what he evokes about Hollywood, about fear, about the romance of the movie business, about loneliness at the top — these are simply off the map. There never has been a better comedy acting job than what Mr. Cruise does in this movie. Plus, he turns out to be an amazing dancer.
The direction and camera work are super fine, too. Just the way the camera picks up men and women in a conference room shows amazing insight about human interaction. The way the camera shows a helicopter taking off shows an understanding of the allure of flight that is so far beyond what even explicit outer space movies show it’s mind boggling. Credit John Toll, the D.P.
The soundtrack is not for the faint of heart. It has a lot of dirty words and it’s not for children. But it has some of my very favorite ’70s songs, especially “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations. I have bought at least ten of the soundtracks and play them constantly. Kudos to Theodore Shapiro, the music director.
The movie has so many great scenes it is impossible to know where to start. But the scene where the blackfaced Downey and Alpa Chino get into a fight ended with Downey’s solemn recital of the theme song from the Jeffersons is a classic. So, are the fake preview with Downey and the fake previews with Jackson and Black. Again, these have a ton of foul language. If this bothers you, stay away. If you can tolerate endless use of the F-bomb, it is a wonderful way to escape the dim mood of the nation and get happy.
This movie is the new gold standard for comedy. Ben Stiller should have gotten an Oscar for the direction. The writers, director of photography, soundtrack supervisor, makeup and hair people, the set designers — above all, again, Tom Cruise — should have gotten Oscars. This movie is a shining gem. It shows that creativity in Hollywood is still very much alive. I always liked Ben Stiller, writer, star, producer. Now I love him. And to my old pal Stuart Cornfeld, the other producer, bravo, bravo, bravissimo! And make sure you get the Director’s Cut.