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Tropic Thunder

There's something happening out here. What it is ain't exactly clear…okay, it seems like thanks to a federal law, every movie about Viet Nam has to include that song, along with a little Creedence and the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil."

Ben Stiller knows these laws inside and out. Yet he observes them while obeying one higher - make your audience laugh. With Tropic Thunder, the writer/director/star pushes the envelope of comedy, creating one of the most consistently funny films in a long time.

Working simultaneously as a parody of Viet Nam movies and a satire of Hollywood - no easy combination -- Tropic Thunder also proves itself everything Pineapple Express purported to be. Strip away the comedy and the story by Stiller and Justin Theroux would still work as an action movie. It even has drug references thanks to the substance abuse of America's most beloved fat comedian, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black).

The tubby star of The Fatties needs this Viet Nam movie to boost his career, and in this he's joined by Stiller's Tugg Speedman, a failing action hero whose previous attempt at acting credibility resulted in "…the worst movie ever made." Why five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) would join these idiots seems unclear, except that he relishes the challenge of playing an African-American platoon sergeant.

And so Tropic Thunder serves as a movie within a movie, commenting on itself endlessly. Suffice to say, Stiller and Theroux have developed a very careful structure, but you'll be too busy laughing to really stop and admire it. Nonetheless, it's clever.

Along with tyro rapper Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), the actors turn out to be endlessly bickering and difficult. With production reeling out of control, desperate director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) takes the advice of Viet Nam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) and drops the "platoon" into a real jungle.

From there, of course, things go horribly wrong, and horribly right for the audience.

Stiller never pulls a punch with the film's jokes, definitely pushing things up to the limits of taste. But it's all in context. Some of the laughs come from uncomfortable gore, but people, this is a war movie. Everything spins from character, whether it's the shallowness of these actors - Lazarus has himself fooled that he's deep - or just their self-deceptions.

Yet it also has heart. As ridiculous as the situation may get, it has an anchor in the form of Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), an actor new enough to the game to still have admiration for his co-stars. That gives the audience a chance to see the better part of these selfish creatures long before they themselves do.

Aside from a great handle on his structure, Stiller breaks new personal ground as a director. He can handle action sequences and quieter moments with a good sense of balance. As a writer, too, he does the right thing of spreading the wealth. This isn't a showcase for Stiller; every one of the main ensemble gets equal time and memorable moments.

That wealth reaches down to a couple of supporting characters, too. Danny McBride follows through on the potential he's shown in earlier movies, here as movie effects man Cody, who's had a dubiously dangerous career on movies that shouldn't have been dangerous. Coogan and Nolte have a nice moment of shared insanity.

But the real praise has to go to two actors I admittedly don't care for much. Though Tom Cruise essentially still plays with his usual palette, channeling his aggression into the character he plays here works pretty well. Then comes Matthew McConaughey. People, this is the role of his career. Maybe he felt he had to up his game when surrounded by so many others above the line, or maybe his character was just that well-written. Either way, he makes his mark in a movie full of stand out performances.

Still, Downey may prove most memorable. A nightmarish exaggeration of the method actor lost in his craft, Downey has so many layers on Kirk Lazarus that this should be the Oscar-worthy performance for him this year. A blue-eyed blond who has surgically altered himself to be black, Lazarus has pushed himself to the point of insanity. Even he can't explain why he still acts like his character when he knows full well the cameras aren't rolling. It's nice to be reminded what a chameleon Downey himself can be.

This review, by the way, comes after seeing Tropic Thunder twice, just to be sure that it was as funny as my first impression said it was. This movie starts with a bang, and barely ever lets you stop to catch your breath. Really, it's been too long since we've had a comedy this strong, this wrong, and oh, so right.


Derek McCaw

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