"Tropic Thunder" only sounds like a Thai porno. It's actually American porn set in the jungles of Vietnam. The non-jungle parts of this crude showbiz circus usually have something to do with a character called Les Grossman, a sleazy Hollywood movie executive with giant forearms, thinning gray hair, psoriasis on his fingertips, and an imbecilic, over-budget Vietnam-era blockbuster called "Tropic Thunder" on his hands.
The makers and marketers of this movie - the one you're paying to see, not the one Grossman is paying to produce - have done an admirable job of keeping to themselves the amusement that beneath Les Grossman's furry chest and thick padding is Tom Cruise. Of course it's hard to ignore a character who's the keystone of one of the most outlandish American farces since Alexander Payne's "Election." This movie, written by Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen, and the actor Justin Theroux and directed by Stiller, will certainly make more money, which will tickle the executives, like Grossman, that "Tropic Thunder" wants to send up.
The movie also wants to laugh at the hubristic spectaculars that men like Grossman love to make money from. The "Tropic Thunder" within "Tropic Thunder" is based on a memoir by a craggy Vietnam veteran (Nick Nolte) with two hooked arms. Its director (Steve Coogan) has dragged a huge crew to Southeast Asia with the intent of filming a movie about five army men behind enemy lines. When an attempt to add grit and spontaneity to the proceedings adds too much of both, the actors playing the soldiers are on their own but still think they're being filmed.
Stiller casts himself as a fading action star desperate to be taken seriously as an actor (he just made a bomb in which he played a severely mentally disabled man). Robert Downey Jr. plays an Australian with five Oscars desperate to be taken seriously as black (he's undergone an improbable Negrofying procedure). Jack Black, waist deep in his most interesting assignment, plays a comedy star and junkie. They're paired with two kids who hold their own on the movie's all-star team: Jay Baruchel, as the young nobody actor playing a nerd soldier, and Brandon T. Jackson, playing a raunchy hip-hop star named Alpa Chino, who can be seen in the uproarious spoof ads that precede the film selling a soft drink called Booty Sweat.
They too wind up behind enemy lines in a jungle where the locals are in the middle of some kind of drug war. (One side's leader is an exuberantly nasty kid played by Brandon Soo Hoo.) And so art and life begin to cannibalize each other. In some future time we may look back on "Tropic Thunder" and ask, "What were we thinking?" But a movie that asks Cruise to slap the air as part of a horse-riding dance popularized by the R&B singer Ginuwine takes some time to recover from. So does one in which Downey appears to be playing Jude Law playing Kirk Douglas playing the late Bernie Mac. Black at some point finds himself tied, mostly naked, to a tree, promising sex to the first man who'll help him get high.
As a director, Stiller gives us too much. There are stretches during the middle where we might be the prisoners of war. Watching actors trudge through the jungle is a lot more fun in early Werner Herzog than mid-period Stiller. But the movie is guided up to a point by the sort of insanity you rarely find in a comedy, where the stars and the material are reaching for the comic versions of the crazy demons that possessed Francis Ford Coppola and his production of "Apocalypse Now." Black's running through the entire picture in a cold-turkey sweat simultaneously confirms that the actor is best left on a movie's back burner and captures how Chris Farley might have played Judy Garland. Nobody in the movie acts. They just do drag.
Of course, the satirical aims of "Tropic Thunder" aren't the great modern war movies per se. (Thank goodness, since Stiller comes much closer to making "Delta Force 3" than "Apocalypse Now.") His "Tropic Thunder" cost close to $100 million to produce, and it seems like a movie made while no one at Paramount was paying much attention. It's an illusion, of course. The movie feels like a consciously happy accident whose offenses (mocking a people who'd worship a turkey about mental illness) are roughly balanced by actors gouging out their own narcissism. And yet this is a movie that still includes a feel-good Oscar ceremony as part of its coda and the most affectionate depiction of a Hollywood agent ever filmed.
And so "Tropic Thunder" is a satire of the Hollywood industrial complex that also feels very much a product of that complex. The jokes are cheap, the big action set pieces are not. Things explode - including cliches. But ultimately those are reassembled and embraced. The movies Stiller has directed ("Reality Bites" and "Zoolander") and a lot of the acting he's done mock vanity and selling out while admiring themselves in the mirror, sending up stars like Cruise while very much wanting to emulate his success. In "Tropic Thunder" Stiller's toned muscles aren't part of the joke.
Despite its contradictions, the film stayed with me after I left the theater. It's frivolous. But it's also powerfully surreal. "Tropic Thunder" isn't about the morality of war. It's about the bad taste of producing certain war movies, the hubris not to take us to war, per se, but to repackage it as adventure. The studio chiefs, the directors, the talent, even the effects guys are tyrants, slobs, creeps, frauds, and wimps.
Thanks to Cruise's indelibly unembarrassed performance, the film's heart of darkness is Les Grossman. The actor isn't funny per se. We've seen him curse people out before. He is fascinating, though. We're supposed to find him villainous. But Grossman is the only person in the movie who knows who he is. He's rich. He's ruthless. And he's the one really making our movies. Watching him kiss a gold chain and do a little dance during the final credits is chilling and weird. We're seeing a movie star have the time of his life playing a war criminal.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.