Tropic Thunder
The few, the proud, the … wait, did someone give Ben Stiller a gun?

Theatrical Release Date: 08/13/2008
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Danny McBride, Tom Cruise, Nick Nolte

So, the viral marketing juggernaut that is “Tropic Thunder” has finally arrived and now it’s time to determine how much is hype and how much is substance. Just how wishy washy is it for me to push on this subject?

I had been looking forward to this as much as anyone else and while I knew that putting Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr. in a jungle together could either be gold or manure, I’m semi-surprised to find the film fall in-between.

On the plus side, Downey is fantastic here and his career surge in 2008 isn’t going to be slowed by this effort. He is the glue that keeps Stiller and Black from completely devolving. Helping him is Jay Baruchel, whose name may not ring too many bells but he’s one of those guys who’s been a supporting player in many comedies in the last few years that you’ll instantly recognize and appreciate. Danny McBride’s inclusion is also great for those of us who enjoy a good laugh as he crushes almost every scene in which his character pops into frame.

The action elements are done well and it’s clear there was a decent production budget available for Stiller, who not only headlines the production but sat in the director’s chair and co-wrote the script. Also, the supporting cast is littered with big name actors like Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey who clearly had a lot of fun playing over-the-top parts and it’s here that I might be among spottier company in film critics’ social circles.

Many people are applauding Cruise for playing a studio executive with the mouth of a sailor and the heart of divorce lawyer. I found it all a bit too much however and I’m not going to sit up and applaud him for spouting dirty words at high volume and dancing like a jackass to rap music. He’s done this “anti-Tom Cruise” role before in “Magnolia” and so while it’s somewhat titillating to hear Maverick run through every blue word in the book, it falls into the same brand of “it’s funnier because I’m yelling and using potty language” comedy for which Stiller and company are best known.

Now, while the majority of the film is peppered with funny lines and wonderful Downey moments, the story progresses a little but like a video game. Our heroes find themselves in a situation, bicker and banter about it, and move on. The story then jumps to the next situation, much like moving on to the next level of a game. This may not be such a bad thing as increasing the continuity and depth of story would have led to greater pacing issues so much like my overall opinion of the film, I guess this is a push as well.

Additionally, there are some bloody/bodily humor elements that might not sit well with the super squeamish and of course, if anyone’s been following the press surrounding the film, there’s the issue of one of Ben Stiller’s character’s roles within a role as “Simple Jack”. Many are unhappy with what appears to be an unnecessary dig at the mentally challenged and I can definitely see where they are coming from. The joke is funny the first time and it’s clear that the joke is initially about actors taking on these roles to garner critical acclaim. As the joke is reintroduced and expanded upon, it takes a different tone and because Stiller seems to hold back from being completely absurd, the insensitive undertones rise to the top.

Still, “Topic Thunder” is pretty funny and I’m giving it a 3 out of 5. It straddles the action/comedy genres decently enough and if you’re a fan of Hollywood mocking itself, then this will work for you. It’s not as funny as “Step Brothers” or “Pineapple Express” but it’s far from a complete waste of time and money. If you’ve got extra of either, go ahead and check it out … as long as you’ve already seen “The Dark Knight” … support the cause, people!

And if you are headed to the multiplex to check this out, be sure to get there on time. Perhaps the smartest element in the film, there are fake trailers and a fake commercial before the film starts. Sadly, the faux films are all too close to what we’re getting these days but it does provide Tobey Maguire’s best performance since “The Cider House Rules” and they set a good tone for the feature film.