There's not a lot of plots left. Most recent movies, especially comedies, can be stripped of a couple character intricacies and look like a dozen other films from the last few years. Not that this is empirically a bad thing - Superbad is one of my favorite comedies of the decade and its plot is the same as a hundred high school party movies, proving that execution can trump idea - but one of the things I loved about Tropic Thunder is that I really haven't seen this movie before. I've seen comedies about making movies, and I've seen jungle-set war movies, but the union? That's genuinely fresh.
Props go to co-writer / director Ben Stiller - he's acted in some rancid shit, but behind the keyboard and camera he's crafted an energetic, absurd, clever, and very entertaining Hollywood satire. There's a bit of an "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to the film, with a lot of different plot threads, characters, and satirical elements crammed into the 100 minutes along with some action scenes, and although not every single thing works the aggregate makes most other recent comedies look flat-out lazy. There's refreshing ambition here.
The satirical element may not dominate every second as completely as in other filmmaking comedies like Bowfinger or Living in Oblivion - sometimes the movie just takes some time out for hysterically over-the-top gore and flat-out absurdity that doesn't ask the audience know much about movies, but in skewering self-important actors, power-mad producers, desperate agents, incompetent directors, and even awards shows and movie trailers, you definitely get the feeling that Stiller is writing what he knows and lives. A bit of knowledge of film greatly enhances the experience; the one-movie-a-year crowd (which boggles my mind, but apparently they do exist) would probably not enjoy it nearly as much.
The ace in the hole is Robert Downey Jr., of course, playing an Australian actor playing a black man. It would be offensive if it wasn't hysterical, but when he's in black mode he wins a laugh with damn near every painfully earnestly-delivered line. His shameless commitment to milking all the absurdity and comedy about of every second of screentime is something special to behold, and watching Downey Jr. launch into the big time between this and Iron Man has been one of the 2008's finest cinematic treats.
Stiller is fairly funny as well, and although the press is largely skimming over him in reviews Jay Baruchel serves the thankless straight man role extremely well and has a much bigger part than indicated by the trailers. And Tom Cruise's much-typed supporting role is very funny, although it certainly doesn't steal the show from Downey Jr. as some reviews have claimed. Matthew McConaughey does his best onscreen work since Dazed and Confused fifteen years ago.
The only acting surprise / disappointment is that Jack Black's character is ultimately really insignificant - he barely serves the plot, is hardly the focal point of a single scene, doesn't get that many great lines (with one highly noteworthy exception), doesn't do anything important in the end, and almost feels more like a really, really extended cameo than an important part.
But when all is said and done, although Jack Black may not do much and a joke or two may fall flat, I did love the movie and have no problem placing it up with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express as 2008's third great comedy. There's been a lot of debate on forums and such as to whether Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express is better - a debate which seems inane, since the two have nothing to do with each other - but although I would probably personally place Pineapple Express a hair above (for James Franco if nothing else), I really see them as perfect companion pieces. Both are profanity-laden, hard-R comedies. Both have way more gunfire, explosions, blood, guts, and death than we normally associate with comedies. Both have a single movie-stealing supporting performance (Franco and Downey Jr.). Both have Danny McBride in a significant and Bill Hader in a minor supporting role. Hell, Tropic Thunder even has an Apatow Productions ambassador in Jay Baruchel. So I say see 'em both, see 'em hardcore - bask in the comedy goodness, because a double whammy this collectively funny is rare.
4 Stars out of 5