News From Terre Haute, Indiana

At the Movies

August 15, 2008

‘Tropic Thunder’ seamlessly blends comedy and action

HOLLYWOOD — “Tropic Thunder,” Ben Stiller’s extravaganza of a Hollywood satire, couldn’t be any more “inside-baseball” if it contained references to the infield fly rule and Rule 5 draft picks.

This movie-within-a-movie is certainly his most ambitious production as a director and it contains some of the biggest belly laughs of his career. But while it blends comedy and action sequences far more skillfully and seamlessly than this summer’s “Pineapple Express,” which shifted from one genre to the other, the endeavor winds up feeling overwrought and repetitive.

Stiller produced, co-wrote the script and stars as Tugg Speedman, an increasingly irrelevant action hero who now leads the ensemble cast of the Vietnam War epic “Tropic Thunder.” Tugg’s previous attempt at being taken seriously, the critical disaster “Simple Jack,” found him playing a slowwitted farm hand; “Tropic Thunder” may be his last shot at redemption.

When Tugg and his equally pampered cast mates turn out to be too distracted to commit to the production, and costs start spiraling out of control, the overwhelmed first-time director (Steve Coogan) leads them into the jungle to bond and fend for themselves. But what they think is a carefully crafted exercise in make-believe turns out to be all too real when they run into a heroin manufacturing operation led by a cigar-chomping, preadolescent drug lord (Brandon Soo Hoo, who’s fierce at just 12).

Jack Black is typically manic and a bit one-note as Jeff Portnoy, the drug-addicted comic star of the flatulent “Fatties” franchise. (Think “Klumps,” only more obnoxious, if that’s possible.) But it’s Robert Downey Jr. who takes the humor to a daring, inspired level with his hilarious turn as Kirk Lazarus, an Academy Award-winning Australian actor who’s so method-y, he undergoes skin-pigmentation surgery to play a black soldier.

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