Tropic Thunder arrives in theaters hyped, virally marketed and decreed by no less an authority than The New York Times as the naughtiest little studio release of the summer-movie season. Humorless disabled-rights groups and one even more humorless Hollywood actor have already lodged formal complaints. Newspaper and magazine editors have devoted several football fields’ worth of column inches to the film’s alleged political incorrectness. Meanwhile, Paramount and DreamWorks, the studios responsible for making and releasing Tropic Thunder, are sitting back — rather happily, I suspect — to watch the brouhaha erupt like a carefully orchestrated marketing strategy clicking neatly into place. “See it — it’s transgressive!” the Tropic Thunder posters, and the behind-the-scenes reports about Robert Downey Jr., appearing in blackface, seem to scream. And then there are Downey’s co-stars, Jack Black and Ben Stiller (who also co-wrote, produced and directed the film) — smart, funny guys who we all want to believe could pull a fast one on the studio suits. So the illusion is sustained for a fleeting moment, before you remember that real acts of cinematic transgression don’t come with $100 million production budgets and Entertainment Weekly cover stories.

Merie Weismiller Wallace

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Platoon for dummies

Over the years, a few genuine boundary-shattering comedies have managed to sneak out of the major studios: Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles was one, Borat another. But more often than not, the most gleefully irreverent movies come from devil-may-care mavericks working on the margins of independent cinema — movies like John Waters’ shoestring, shit-eating classic Pink Flamingos, or even, more to the point, the early (and largely forgotten) films of Downey’s own father, Robert Downey Sr., whose 1969 Putney Swope imagined what might happen if a prominent Madison Avenue advertising firm were suddenly overtaken by militant blacks. Those movies had — and continue to have ­— more sting than anything in Tropic Thunder, which is ultimately just another movie about moviemaking, better than some (David Mamet’s State and Main comes to mind), not as good as others (The Player, S.O.B.), occasionally willing to bite the hand that feeds it but more often content to merely teethe.

Set in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Tropic Thunder concerns the filming of an Apocalypse Now–style Vietnam War drama (also called Tropic Thunder), based on a memoir by a maimed piss-and-vinegar vet (Nick Nolte), and starring an unholy A-list triumvirate. In the lead role is Tugg Speedman (Stiller), a muscled-up, seen-better-days action hero whose signature franchise, Scorcher, has outlived its popularity. Lending him support is Jeff Portnoy (Black), a lowbrow farceur (think Eddie Murphy crossed with Chris Farley) best known for playing multiple roles in a series of gross-out comedies called The Fatties. And then there’s Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), a multiple-Oscar-winning Australian Method actor who’s so Method — and, for all Downey’s public denials, so clearly based on Russell Crowe — that he undergoes skin-darkening pigmentation treatments in order to play one of the movie’s two token African-Americans.

When Tropic Thunder begins, this movie-within-the-movie is already millions over budget and months behind schedule, due, in no small part, to the constant bickering and prima-donna attitudes of its three stars. That’s when the addled, in-over-his-head director (Steve Coogan) comes up with an inspired idea: In a scenario that feels cribbed from Werner Herzog’s inimitable documentary/docudrama hybrid Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he decides to deposit his spoiled cast deep in the jungle depths and film them with hidden cameras, as they, like the characters they’re supposed to be playing, run for their lives. But when the director blows his top — and a few other body parts — after stepping on a real land mine, our thespian trio (plus a few secondary players, including a rapper turned actor named Alpa Chino — get it?) find themselves stranded behind drug-running lines, faced with a whole new kind of improvisation.

For me, the scene where Coogan bites the big one is where Tropic Thunder — which starts off promisingly, with hilarious fake trailers for Scorcher VI, The Fatties II and a medieval gay-priest drama starring Lazarus and Tobey Maguire — begins to lose its way. And it never fully rights itself. Like this summer’s other slapstick cause célèbre, Pineapple Express, it’s a comedy with as high or higher a body count as the movies it purports to be parodying, and the problem isn’t the violence per se but rather the fact that neither movie ever finds a satisfactory balance between tongue-in-cheek and guts-in-hand. The bigger problem, I think, is that Stiller wants to seem like a bad boy without ever really offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Aside from the few choice pinpricks it lands in the overinflated egos of self-serious actors, most of the targets of Tropic Thunder’s satire come stamped with a VHS-era sell-by date. As in Christopher Guest’s similarly limp For Your Consideration, the type of movie being lampooned — in Guest’s film, an earnest dying-matriarch melodrama; here, an overproduced Vietnam epic — is one that Hollywood itself has by now come to see the folly of, thereby making it a soft target for comic archery. Even the thing that has gotten the ADA (or whoever it is) up in arms — a subplot about Stiller’s character starring as a mentally handicapped man in a failed change-of-pace movie called Simple Jack ­— would have held more currency two decades ago, when such shameless Oscar bids were more abundant, and generally afforded more credence by the industry. (Remember Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry?) Nowadays, that sort of blatant shilling for awards-season bouquets is parody enough in itself. (Remember Cuba Gooding Jr. in Radio?) And while Tropic Thunder’s ensuing discussion about the career hazards of going “full retard” in a role is undeniably a highlight, it hardly qualifies as a major act of anarchy.

So Tropic Thunder amounts to a passable evening’s entertainment for the Entertainment Tonight crowd, but little more. It’s handsomely made (the cinematographer is Oscar winner John Toll, who shot The Thin Red Line, The Last Samurai and, curiously, Francis Coppola’s Jack, which seems the not-so-hidden inspiration for Simple Jack) and sporadically amusing, but almost everything about the movie sounds sharper, funnier and smarter than it turns out to be. That’s especially true of Tom Cruise, whose ballyhooed supporting role as Tropic Thunder’s bile-spewing Jewish producer is effectively his excitable Magnolia performance covered up in a fat suit, tufts of curly body hair and a skullcap. It’s also true of Downey, who’s a consistent pleasure to watch but whose skin-darkening character functions solely as a piñata for actorly navel-gazing, effectively negating any possibility that Tropic Thunder might say something provocative about the film industry’s persistent ghettoization of black talent. That people are picketing this movie is fairly depressing and itself a subject fit for satire.

TROPIC THUNDER | Directed by BEN STILLER | Written by JUSTIN THEROUX, BEN STILLER and ETAN COHEN, from a story by STILLER and THEROUX | Produced by STUART CORNFELD, STILLER and ERIC McLEOD | Released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures | Citywide

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