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‘Tropic’ skewers Hollywood 

click to enlarge RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE: Lots of laughs, thanks to Stiller and Downey.
  • RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE: Lots of laughs, thanks to Stiller and Downey.

If you're like me, your reaction to the “Tropic Thunder” trailer was one of ambivalence — the ads outlined a movie that looked like it could be either really funny or a colossal waste of nine bucks. The only thing that showed any promise was Robert Downey Jr. playing an Australian playing an African American, and even that had the potential for one-note, lazy yuks. Lucky for me I get paid to take risks on these movies.

But for this one, bottom line: Go see it. You will laugh, and laugh hard.

“Tropic Thunder” is Hollywood movie-about-a-movie satire rife with mockery of everyone from the most powerful executive down to the lowliest B-list actor. That's been done, and it's been done more intelligently, but I've never seen it done funnier.

A first-time director is attempting to make a Vietnam War drama, but his top four actors are wresting control of the movie away from him and throwing good money after bad. The budget and deadline are spiraling out of control, and the film's financier is threatening murder.

That's when the director has a stroke of genius: Get these prima donnas away from their assistants and cell phones, drop them in the jungle with a map and a shooting script, put small digital cameras up in the trees and shoot the whole thing guerrilla-style. Only one problem: The director dies and the actors (who think they're still in the movie) attract the attention of a local drug-manufacturing warlord, who is in turn convinced that the actors are DEA agents after his operation.

It's a good mix of characters to drop in this situation, and good actors to play them: Stiller as the failing action star who is desperate for Oscar-level credibility, Downey as the “genius” who won't stop pretending to be black even when he's pretending to be Vietnamese, and Jack Black as the heroin-addicted fart joke comedian looking for a breakthrough role.

Sounds like a slapsticky kind of set-up, and it is precisely that, but that's just a jump-off point for a half-joking exploration into issues of race, money, power and portrayals of the disabled in mass media. Not a cerebral film, not nearly so, but an honest one nevertheless, one that is not content to let Jack Black scream and fall over before rolling the credits.

Now, the movie also gets caught in a few summer comedy traps. The “funny twist” that the bad guy is a kid has been played to death. Jack Black is Jack Black and Ben Stiller is Ben Stiller Earnest Moron Funny Character Guy, though both are dialed back quite a bit.

But Downey is a revelation here as a “dude pretending to be a dude disguised as another dude,” giving the sort of comedic performance your parents will finally start quoting about a year from now, and Stiller's script is overall able to carry off those weaknesses. It's also crass, really really really crass and broad and vulgar, so if you're easily offended, go watch the space monkey movie instead.

In short, “Tropic Thunder” is not what you'd call a thought-provoking film, no, more like the smartest and smelliest collection of poop jokes to hit the big screen in some time. It's good popcorn stuff, good for a series of cleansing belly laughs.

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