Tropic Thunder (2008)


*. The shelf date for comedy can be given in months. That’s how long it takes for the year’s most hilarious hit to turn into a movie that nobody in their right mind would laugh at.
*. I don’t mean this observation as a way of introducing a pan of Tropic Thunder. I do think it’s (still) a funny movie. But it’s a way of introducing a corollary point: that comedy is always of its time. In approaching a comedy you always have to keep in mind what that time was, what its defining features and characteristics were.
*. What was comedy in 2008? In a word, satire. The mockumentary was the preferred form (think Borat, or the television series The Office), presenting absurd situations that people played absolutely straight.
*. Tropic Thunder is very close to being a mockumentary, taking the form of a movie about the making of a movie. The characters are caricatures (the dense action star, the self-important method actor, the drugged-out, overweight comedian), and the humour comes from how seriously they take themselves.


*. Robert Downey Jr. gets to steal the show because his Kirk Lazarus is both the most ridiculous cast member and the one who expresses the most wide-eyed sense of self-importance. Nothing is going to take him out of his part. There’s even a line where he tells Tuggman that he doesn’t break character until after the DVD commentary. And sure enough Downey does do the DVD commentary in character, making it almost as entertaining as the film itself.
*. Helping things along is the fact that the world of entertainment naturally lends itself to the comedy of juxtaposing its madness with the “real” world outside the bubble. It always has.
*. Basically this strikes me as a remake of Three Amigos with a Vietnam setting instead of Mexico, finding lots of laughs in blurring the line between illusion and reality as Hollywood action heroes find themselves deep in the shit. I thought it was interesting, by the way, that no one on the commentary mentions Three Amigos, though they mention all of the Vietnam movies that they are taking off.
*. I’m not sure what to think of the beautiful Hawaiian setting. It seems a little too pretty. Even when the team wanders off the beaten track they still seem like they’re on a set.


*. It’s a film that did attract controversy, some of which should have been anticipated. Going after “retards” was bound to get some blowback. I’m surprised, however, that people objected to Downey’s turn in blackface. That was the joke, I don’t see how anyone could take it as being racist.
*. I will confess I did not recognize Tom Cruise. I was immediately wondering who Les Grossman was because I was sure I’d seen him somewhere before, but I couldn’t place him. Score one for the makeup team.


*. That said, I don’t think Grossman is very funny. He has no good lines except for the colourful insults he bellows at people, and even these aren’t all that imaginative. I don’t blame Cruise; it’s just not a well-written part. Aside from that, his timing was good.
*. And so in 2008 this was what we thought was funny. Very funny, even (though there are whole bits that don’t work at all for me). And to some extent it still is. Will it still be funny ten years from now? Perhaps, but certainly much less so. And anything beyond that would be a hazardous bet indeed. I think we’ll have moved on.


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