‘Thunder’ not a roaring success


Film: Tropic Thunder
Director: Ben Stiller
Producers: Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod, Ben Stiller
Writers: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black
Runtime: 107 minutes
Rating: R

The word “ridiculous” is often used to describe great comedies. Anyone who’s ever seen “Anchorman’s” epic fight scene can attest to this.

But a comedy also needs strong jokes to reinforce the sheer amounts of ridiculousness to truly succeed, which is where comedian/director Ben Stiller’s latest, “Tropic Thunder,” stumbles. The movie is filled with plenty of absurd, eye-rolling moments, but with simple, inside-Hollywood jokes that don’t push any boundaries, it feels like a rental and not a must-see.

The film centers around three egotistical actors — action star Tugg Speedman (Stiller), comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and award-winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) — as they struggle to make a Vietnam-based war film. But with rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) at the helm, production doesn’t go smoothly. Cockburn can’t keep the actors in line, and in an attempt to break them of their pampered lives, takes the entire cast into the jungle with Vietnam veteran Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), to film the movie guerilla-style. Once they’re in the jungle they are discovered by a group of armed rebels who mistake them as American invaders, and the cast’s foray into the jungle quickly turns from acting to a struggle for survival.

“Thunder” is a movie that’s all about its characters. Each of the three main actors plays their stereotypical roles well. Of course, the controversial Lazarus, an obvious parody of infamous method actor Russell Crowe, steals the show, and will easily be the one aspect of the film that people will remember. Stiller’s portrayal of Stallone-inspired action hero Speedman is good enough to share the screen with Downey, and their interplay is often very entertaining. Sadly, Portnoy is underused, a considerable problem since Black’s character is often the source of the more traditional jokes.

This ultimately leads into “Thunder’s” major problem: there just aren’t enough jokes, and those that are there are simple and run-of-the-mill. Sure, there are moments where you’ll laugh, but most of the time you’ll find yourself chuckling instead of belting out a gut buster. For a film that really takes a risk by having one of the lead actors in blackface, the jokes are often safe and, with the exception of some f-bombs, very tame.

What “Thunder” does have is some of the most ridiculous moments in any comedy released this year. But in a move that exposes some of his inexperience behind the camera, Stiller focuses more on these moments, which include a gun-wielding rebel dressed as a woman along with a kid who runs a large heroin ring, than he does the actual comedy. Although some of these scenes can be funny, there is very little substance to them, and they sometimes feel like filler. Worst of all, you can see all of them in the R-rated trailer on YouTube.

These more ridiculous moments tend to have one thing in common – they all heavily mock Hollywood. This gives “Thunder” an “Ocean’s” sequel feel – they’re films made by actors, for actors. There are a lot of scenes that feel like inside jokes to the Hollywood crowd, which are sort of amusing, but not too entertaining to viewers who are not involved in the movie business. This disconnect can oftentimes be jarring, especially when you can’t relate to the characters that are often meant to be the centerpiece of the film. In a way, it’s interesting to see actors critiquing their own industry, but it really doesn’t give the viewer anything substantial to relate to.

And that sums up “Tropic Thunder” perfectly. It’s more interesting in its mockery than in its humor. Although it does offer some laughs, it’s more an analytical look into a world that the overwhelming majority will never know. Technically, it succeeds at this, but that’s not what it fundamentally sets out to do. As a comedy, it only makes us laugh so much, and most of its humor just doesn’t matter.