This movie made me laugh.
It won't win Oscars. (Even if one of the actors in it should.) But it really made me appreciate Ben Stiller even more.
First, he's not Judd fucking Apatow and even though I actually don't mind the Apatow-stamp on movies as long there aren't any women in them, I've gotten a little weary of his touch on seemingly every comedy the past couple years. (And, the reason I don't mind the women-less movies such as Pineapple Express and Superbad is not because I dislike women -- it's because I like women and it's exasperating to see them through the Apatow-lens, so I much prefer the straight-shot gay (though veiled as "bromance") all-guy shenanigans.) In Stiller's Tropic Thunder, there's hardly a female to be found. It's a man-fest, alright, but instead of Seth Rogen's doughy tummy we have Stiller's ripped arms and, well, Jack Black's doughy tummy.
Second, though plenty of critics will probably nail Stiller's directing style as pedestrian, I'd instead peg it as straightforward. He manages to take the script written by himself, Justin Theroux, and Etan Cohen, which mixes both slapstick and verbal comedy with action. And though the action scenes are generally shot for laughs, what I most appreciate about them is that you can actually tell what the fuck is going on. I'm just, just so sick to fucking death of the shaky-cam and clever cuts and shadowy, indistinct figures throwing punches at...something. In Thunder, Stiller blows shit up and we actually see it full detail. He picks his shots that others with a penchant for more flair would probably consider to be obvious, but that's exactly why the shots work. He's not trying to be clever with the production here, he's just delivering.
What is somewhat simply clever -- in an admittedly obvious meta way -- is the premise of the whole flick. It's about the making of a Vietnam war movie where the actors get sent out to do hardcore shooting and end up being engaged by a child druglord. Much like in the highly underrated Zoolander, Stiller uses the whole premise to poke fun at preening actors, greedy Hollywood, clueless directors, and rabid agents. You know, Stiller's real-life lifeblood.
By now, you've heard that Tom Cruise has a lauded appearance in the movie. And, well, if you hadn't heard it before, you have now. It's a bookend performance to his "respect the cock" turn in Magnolia. Here, in Thunder, his sulfur-tongue spills the wrathful venom of a movie mega-producer losing millions on a quagmire of a movie set. Now, I'm just as "Cruise is a loony" as the next person. Believe me, I laugh and laugh about his manic thetan proclivities. But, admittedly, I do also think he's done some good work. I know plenty of people will dispute that. But when he plays an asshole, like in Rain Man or Color of Money, he has this almost freaky ability to put his uber-wired energy in front of the camera and create a near trance inducing spell. It's uncomfortable to watch, and yet I can't pull myself away. And here, he takes that manipulative ability and actually does perform a nearly meditative, trancelike victory dance while proposing the most vicious deal to a fast-talking Matthew McConaughey.
Which brings me to another reason to appreciate Stiller, or at least his cinematographer. The last time I saw MM was in Failure to Launch and he looked like hammered shit. So did Sarah Jessica Parker. I wondered what the fuck was wrong with the both of them. Then I wondered if the person filming them was just an asshole. Suspicion confirmed. In Tropic Thunder, Matt is back to looking fabufuckinglicious. So, thank you, Ben. Also? Ben looked great. Everyone who was supposed to looked great. I do still question why Jay Baruchel speaks exactly like Christian Slater, not just in timbre but also in cadence and elocution, but since he does it in everything I've seen him in, I guess that's not Stiller's doing.
And, of course, then there's Robert Downey Jr., scoring big for the second time this year. You don't need me to vivisect his performance, you just need to sit back and enjoy it.
Hollywood does love itself, even when it's lampooning itself, but credit also to Stiller for making the "in" jokes accessible. Which is another way of saying that the humor here isn't exactly the most advanced, but it probably will get you to laugh at least a couple of times unexpectedly.