'Tropic' of Cancer

Ben Stiller's blistering satire 'Tropic Thunder' shoots and scores

By Lori Hoffman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 21, 2008

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Tropic Thunder

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Phillies fans remember when Mike Schmidt went on the road and trashed his hometown fans in a Montreal newspaper, calling them "uncontrollable." When he returned home he begged for forgiveness by going out on the field wearing a long blonde wig.

Tom Cruise has seen his popularity take a nosedive with his antics on Oprah and other incidents that earned him the title of "uncontrollable." In a similar fashion to Schmidt's wig joke, Cruise -- made to look 20 years older with a balding head and padding -- plays a Hollywood producer in Tropic Thunder so callous and vicious, he makes his own transgressions seem minor and forgivable in comparison. That probably wasn't going through Cruise's mind at the time, but it went through my mind as I watched director Ben Stiller gleefully sever the hand that feeds him in his vicious, funny Hollywood satire.

Stiller, who stars in, co-wrote (with Etan Cohen and Justin Theroux) and directs Tropic Thunder, targets such obvious Hollywood's obsessions as money before art, and, in turn, actors so obsessed with art, they take themselves way too seriously.

Using hilarious coming attractions ala Grindhouse to introduce the characters, Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, an action movie superstar hoping to reboot his career after a disastrous attempt to earn Oscar consideration playing a mentally challenged man. Now he is on location making in a Vietnam-era war picture, Tropic Thunder, with a man whose career he envies, five time Oscar-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.), who decided to have his skin darkened to play an African-American in the movie. Also in the cast is drug-addled comic actor Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) who's a big star thanks to a series of movies about a flatulent family, The Fatties. There is a real black man in the cast, hip-hop star Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who challenges Lazarus' absurd obsession with acting black, and a young, inexperienced co-star, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), who actually went to boot camp and read the script. Also on location is the overwhelmed British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), the special effects guy Cody (Danny McBride), and the author of the book being adapted to the screen, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte).

Producer Les Grossman (Cruise) back is Hollywood wants to kill the director when a major snafu has the movie way over budget. In the course of trying to control the raging egos of the cast -- and at the urging of war hero Four Leaf -- Damien dumps the actors in the middle of the jungle in order to make the film guerilla-style with hidden cameras. This idea literally blows up in the director's face, and the actors are suddenly lost in the jungle with real guns being fired in their direction when the local drug cartel thinks the actors are D.E.A. agents.

Stiller uses this premise to put the excesses of Hollywood on parade and proceeds to mow them down with a Gatling gun of potshots at the worst Hollywood has to offer, Cruise's Grossman being his favorite target. Grossman is giddy at the thought of being able to exploit Speedman's bad luck (he is kidnapped by the drug dealers), and make a pile of money.

As with most satires, there are moments in Tropic Thunder that careen wildly out of control with no payoff, but when Stiller hits his intended targets, the rewards make up for the wild misses.

Woody's European Phase

Woody Allen has been earning acclaim again for his films since he started making them in Europe, first in England and now Spain with Vicky Christina Barcelona. Unfortunately, I don't get what people see in his current European phase. To me, his career continues to fade away from its masterful height of both hilarity and heartbreak in the 1970s and '80s. With his latest film, he brings the angst of his Manhattan characters to Spain, and tries to blend them into a story that has Almod�var overtones, but Spain's national treasure, Pedro Almod�var, does them much better than Allen. I will continue to treasure Allen's past work and wish I liked his current fare as much.

Tropic Thunder ***
Directed by Ben Stiller; rated R

Vicky Christina Barcelona **
Written & Directed by Woody Allen; rated PG-13

To read more about movies and other topics covered by movie critic Lori Hoffman under her blog alias Moviejunkie, visit


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