Better run through the jungle

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Earlier in the summer I posted a list of my most anticipated movies for the summer season, and after last weekend I can now officially cross them all off the list. “Tropic Thunder,” Ben Stiller’s raucous farce of Hollywood was last on the list, and in retrospect, I’m glad I put it on there, because it’s one of the better comedies to come out in a while.

This is a film that is predicated on the fact that Hollywood is a ridiculous place to be: actors are all zillionaire prima donnas, studio execs are pompous blowhards and agents are leaches hoping to not lose their meal tickets. Stiller has said that he’s wanted to lampoon the industry since the 90s, and now he seemingly has the clout to be able to pull it off.

Here, he, along with Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black portray three huge Hollywood stars who have banded together to film the most expensive war movie ever: a Vietnam saga about a rescue mission which shares the name of the actual title of this film.

Stiller comes in as Tugg Speedman, once the highest grossing action star, but now on the downslide of his career after a disastrous turn at serious filmmaking. Black’s JeffPortnoy is a zany comedian (a real stretch role, for sure) who has built his legacy on a series of movies called “The Fats,” parodies of the multi-character movies like “The Nutty Professor” that Eddie Murphy does. Downey Jr. is the real scene-stealer this time around with his Kirk Lazarus, the Australian five-time Academy Award winning method actor.

So serious about his role, Lazarus undergoes a skin pigment dyeing procedure to play the African-American sergeant in the film – and he embodies the role using just about every black stereotype he can conjure, much to the chagrin of Alpa Chino, a successful rapper trying to make the crossover to acting in this movie. The two are constantly at odds throughout, with Alpa Chino quick to remind Lazarus that he’s Australian whenever things start to get out of line.

With the three distinct personalities clashing on the set, the rookie director cannot seem to corral them all in and, at the behest of Nick Nolte’s Four Leaf Tayback character (a survivor of the actual mission, and writer of the book that inspired the film they’re making) suggests that they drop the boys in the middle of the jungle and let them fend for themselves while filming.

The plan, of course, backfires and we’re left with several actors who have no idea what they’re doing in the woods out to survive and simultaneously make this film.

Everything about this movie is a send-up of the film industry, and the parody is quite witty and thoughtful. No aspect of Hollywood is left unturned as Stiller and his crew know how ridiculous this business is. One thing that immediately drew me into this film (other than the well assembled cast) is the fact that Stiller himself is the director – the first such film he’s done since the incredible “Zoolander,” one of the best comedies of the last decade or so.

To me, Stiller is best when he’s playing the zanier characters, such as those found here, in “Dodgeball,” “Zoolander” and his brilliant cameo in the Tenacious D movie. With the exception of the “Meet the Parents” franchise, I can’t stand him when he plays the nervous, lovelorn sap found in “Along Came Polly” and the like. Stiller has great comedy chops and character acting ability, so it’s in his and the audience’s best interest for them to be utilized.

Now, with this film parodying everything, including a variety of racial and ethnic stereotypes, there’s bound to be some controversy. In “Thunder’s” case, it’s with those with mental disabilities. Advocacy groups have decried the film’s use of the “r-word” saying it is extremely offensive. I don’t see it as so much of trying to be offensive to people with mental disabilities, but more a commentary on the long-standing belief that if people play such a character in a serious film, then they’re a shoe-in for an Oscar nod.

Speedman tried it after his action career was fading, and according to Lazarus, he took it a bit too far for the Academy Award voters. I can see that people would be offended, and I’m not one to gloss over when something is offensive, but the issue seems moot here.

And the thing that gets me the most here is I’ve read some commentaries from advocacy groups saying they will not see the movie, but to me, if you have a beef with something, you should actually see it first to make up your own mind to see if it is as offensive as first thought.

When I purchased my ticket, the guy at the theater said I was required to read a disclaimer about how some see it as offensive, so their concerns are making it to the real-life Hollywood executives.

Despite any controversy this film may have, it’s still easily the comedy of the summer, and I suppose by default, of the year. This movie sucks you in from the very beginning with parody trailers from each of the big stars (try not to laugh during Downey Jr.’s bit). Complete with some major cameos that I won’t reveal (though they’re not hard to find if you search closely on those Interwebs), this movie is terrific and surely one that shouldn’t be missed.