A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this hard-R action comedy starring kid favorites Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and (thanks to Iron Man) Robert Downey Jr. is really a satirical send-up of Hollywood culture -- from the stereotypical castes of actors and greedy studio heads to celeb-obsessed TV shows. Much has been made of some of the movie's more controversial sources of humor, including having Downey darken his skin to play an African-American character and a running gag about a mentally challenged man played by Stiller's character. It's all meant to drive home the movie's points about Hollywood, but you may need to explain that to teens. There's also a lot of gory violence (both fake and realistic) -- including a 12-year-old drug lord who's scary and good with weapons -- as well as enough swear words to make Quentin Tarantino blush. Drugs (use and manufacture) are part of a significant subplot, but there are basically no women in the film, so there's only brief mention of sex.
What's the story?
Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action star desperately trying to reclaim Hollywood bankability in the Vietnam film-within-a-film TROPIC THUNDER. Joining Speedman on the Southeast Asia set are Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Oscar winner who controversially darkens his skin to play an African-American soldier; scatological comedian/out-of-control drug addict Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black); savvy hip-hop-mogul-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Johnson); and nerdy film-school grad Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). When the overwhelmed, grossly over-budget director (Steve Coogan) realizes he's about to lose control of the movie, he concocts a last-ditch plan with the loopy Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte) whose memoir the movie is based on: Chopper the ensemble into the jungle with nothing but their uniforms and a map in hopes of capturing more intense performances. But soon after being deserted, the actors encounter the very real threat of armed heroin manufacturers, who mistake the fake army unit for American DEA agents.
Is it any good?
Writer-director-producer Stiller pokes witty fun at self-absorbed actors and greedy studios in this send-up of action-packed war dramas. Although it's darker and more violent than the much-seen trailer suggests, Tropic Thunder is bitingly funny and incredibly intelligent. Downey is especially brilliant as "the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude" -- a Method actor so caught up in the part he doesn't drop character between shots. Black has less to do as a junkie lowbrow comic, but Baruchel and Johnson shine as, respectively, the newcomer actor who actually read the entire script and the diversified rapper adding acting to his many revenue streams. It's remarkable that Stiller, unlike many actors who direct themselves, resisted the opportunity to focus on himself and instead allowed his ensemble of whip-smart actors with impeccable comedic timing to do their thing.
In a fabulous piece scenery chewing, a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise straps on a bald cap and a hairy fat suit to play repulsive studio head Les Grossman, the kind of obscenity-spewing tycoon who would sell his mother's soul to Satan for higher box-office grosses. He even tries to convince Speedman's loyal agent (Matthew McConaughey, who for once keeps his shirt on) to let Speedman die at the heroin gang's hands in exchange for a personal jet. Cruise and Downey are the hilarious highlights in one of this year's funniest films.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about satire. Do teens get that everything in the movie is satirizing formulaic Hollywood blockbusters, insecure actors, mindless celebrity gossip shows, etc.? What do they think about Downey playing an African American? Funny? Offensive? How is it different than the now-unacceptable practice of white actors performing in blackface for minstrel shows? And what about the "retard" characterizations? Ask your teens whether they thought it was amusing or off-putting, and see if they can explain their point of view. It will help them see the material critically. How does the movie-within-a-movie allow the filmmakers to poke fun at the film industry?
- In theaters: August 13, 2008
- On DVD or streaming: November 17, 2008
- Cast: Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr.
- Director: Ben Stiller
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 111 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material.
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