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Tropic Thunder

In Film, Reviews on January 3, 2012 at 7:21 am

Ben Stiller, 2008

Comedy can be a method of asserting one’s superiority – the satirical lampoon, the one-line takedown, the witty riposte. The spoof movie fits well into this category: I see through your movie so I will expose its transparency to comedic effect.

But the spoof genre is not a homogenous entity. One spectrum along which spoof pictures vary is the level of affection which they hold for the original. Films such as the Scary Movie series assert their superiority by holding their target films in great disdain. They mock the perceived simplicity of the horror genre without acknowledging the merit of horror films. At the other end of the spectrum are movies so respectful of the source material that one wonders at the definition of ‘spoof’. Scream is one example, The Big Lebowski is another. In fact both of these films pay homage to the original films. In this sense, they are displaying their deference while mocking at the same time.

So what then is is the definition of a spoof? A film that mocks another film, or whole genre of films, through knowing imitation?

By that definition Tropic Thunder is certainly a spoof, but one that rather ambitiously takes on not just one film, not just one genre, but the entire Hollywood film output. But does it see itself as superior? Or does it accept that it, and its team of actors, are just as mired in the bullshit as everyone else?

The film is hilarious. But the send-ups of Hollywood clichés are, well, cliché. The Lothario who ends up being gay, the Vietnamese war hero who is nothing of the sort, the geeky one who is relatively sensible, but easily intimidated by the big guys – these are stock characters. Ben Stiller’s slightly dim but largely well-meaning action man and Robert Downey Jr’s method-acting prima donna are also easy targets. Action films have been better spoofed in Team America, war films in Hot Shots.

Which is not to say that these characters are not funny – they are. They’re very funny, but not as witty exposés of the self-serving vapidity of Hollywood; that side of things is somewhat dull. They’re funny because they’re silly. The best moments of the film involve Downey Jr’s character struggling to be black, Jack Black’s character saying or doing outrageous things while going cold turkey and, most triumphantly of all, Tom Cruise being, ahem, a cunt. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Tom Cruise is a revelation.

So, superior? I don’t think they even saw themselves as such. ‘Preening LA people who like everything to be about them’ are something of a theme for Ben Stiller. Reality Bites, Zoolander, Greenberg and now this – of those four films, three directed by him. It appears that Stiller is attempting to explore and expose not something around him, but something more deeply personal. The ridiculousness of losing your own sense of self in the character of a ‘retard’ or a ‘black man’ or any other generalised non-self, non-identity appears to be irking him.

But seriously, Tom Cruise is a revelation.

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