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‘Topic’ thunders into theaters

August 21, 2008

On the surface Ben Stiller’s new comedy “Tropic Thunder” is an equal opportunity offender. Stiller has spent years working on a script that is a riff on Hollywood’s heart of darkness and takes pot shots at the movie industry’s treatment of race, mental disabilities, and the military. There’s nothing new in the ghoulishly greedy studio head, the tyrannical but terrified director, the actors so lost in narcissism that illusion is more immediate than reality. But Stiller’s savage take on the layers of deceit that produce an accidental blockbuster is chilling in its damnation of the system that supports him.

That Stiller has recruited a stellar cast to portray his thespian misfits speaks to the clout he wields in Hollywood. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, star of the ‘Fatties’ movies, whose complaint is the lack of heroin in the jungle. Robert Downey, Jr., plays Australian film legend Kirk Lazarus, so method in his approach to a role that he makes Russell Crowe and Daniel Day-Lewis look like dilettantes. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a Stallone-Willis style superhero whose box office draw is fading fast. The actors are introduced as quick and dirty stereotypes. Developing character isn’t what this film is about.

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Under the direction of a wigged-out Steve Coogan, the three, together with two supporting actors, head out into the midst of the Southeast Asian jungle to film a Vietnam war movie guerilla style — i.e., with cameras hidden in the trees and walkie-talkie cues from an invisible director. When the worst happens and the actors find themselves in the middle of a war with jungle drug dealers, the story’s focus shrinks to skits illustrating the actors’ inability to tell illusion from reality. One telling touch is Stiller as he’s being water tortured yelling, “Cut! Cut!”

The most compelling part of the movie is Robert Downey playing a blond, blue-eyed Australian playing a black American complete with skin pigmentation operation. Once in the role, he can’t leave it even when in the midst of a fight for his life or when challenged by an authentic black American actor (Brandon T. Jackson) who keeps pointing out where Downey’s interpretation goes wrong.

Moments of “Topic Thunder” are hilarious as is its insiders’ game of spot the film reference. Tom Cruise as the surprise guest — the money-mad movie mogul in the chest hair — redeems his career with this performance. But a great deal of the film is own heart of darkness drawn from lessons he learned at his parents’ knee. Sometimes we understand what he’s saying and sometimes we don’t. But it’s always interesting to watch Hollywood insiders shaft their own. See you at the movies!


SUSAN JAMES can be reached at lcnews@vallysun.net

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