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ben stiller

Tropic Thunder is a biting satire on the state of Hollywood filmmaking and prima donna status if big name actors in the industry, and amid all the controversy you would expect the film to have little more edge to it. Not to sell Ben Stiller’s writing-directing-producing work short, the film is very well done, and nearly every joke hits its mark, but you wonder if more than a few punches were pulled at the last minute to guarantee all those involved would actually be able to work in the industry they were skewering again.

Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a lagging action star responsible for the ubiquitous Scorcher series of films now in its sixth installment as the pre-movie faux trailers tell us. Speedman took a disastrous turn as a “full retard” in Simple Jack an award-fishing expedition lambasted as one of the worst films ever made. Speedman signs on to Tropic Thunder (also the name of the movie within the movie) to rejuvenate his career alongside one-joke comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) who farts a lot and Australian method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) who dons blackface and a clichéd African-American persona. The internal film’s director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) receives and ultimatum from studio head Les Grossman (scene stealing Tom Cruise) leading Cockburn to drop his actors in the middle of a drug warfare zone and shoot the film guerilla style.

All of the leads bring their A-game but it’s the roles by Downey, Jr., Cruise, and supporting roles of Jay Baruchel and Danny McBride that really propel the movie to the next level. Cruise’s involvement was meant to be kept a secret to surprise the audience, and even with pictures on the net and syndicated reporting, you could still hear “That’s Tom Cruise!” exclaimed throughout the theater when he first appears litter the room with profanities. Coming off Iron Man, Robert Downey, Jr. look to continue his career high with an excellent portrayal of method actors and the extreme lengths they go through to preserve the illusion on and off camera. Baruchel, late of Knocked Up and TV’s Undeclared, plays the straight man in the ensemble and McBride, seen only last week in Pineapple Express brings the pyro-obsessed FX-master Cody to life.

The opening segments of the film are the most rewarding with the trailers highlighting the careers of each of the three leads and the in-movie filming of the big finale of Tropic Thunder complete with a $4 million dollar explosion (in which the camera wasn’t rolling) offer up the most laughs. As the film progresses and the characters become aware that they are no longer actors in a guerilla style war film, but civilians being captured by drug runners the movie loses a little bit of the spark that initially drew you in, the satire is gone as the film devolves into your basic war-time comedy.

One of the problems is the characters are never really developed beyond their eccentricities, Speedman is the classic action star looking for a serious role and recognition and respect, Lazarus is the quirky Australian who excels at acting naturally, and Portnoy is basically a combination of Belushi and Farley rolled into the flatulent stylings of Eddie Murphy. The secondary characters play one note throughout, and while these notes are funny, it only lends to the belief that so much more could have been done with this picture.

Just like the beginning the ending also brings a host of laughs as a mock Oscar ceremony finds our heroes sometime after the completion of the film and a final dancing scene presents the credits to you in one of the most disturbing manners possible.

The hype that has preceded Tropic Thunder may be its biggest enemy as its almost impossible to live up to the expectations of being a razor-sharp satire on movie making. At the core this is what Stiller and company were going for, but in reality the audience is treated to a fair amount of satire before just settling for what we get.

There has be a lack of great comedy pictures in the last year, and it may not be because studios aren’t trying, but when sequels to endless franchises and old comedic directors attempting to relive former glory, it is hard to get a fresh new idea that brings more to the table than your average racial jokes and footballs to the crotch. Luckily there are studios and producers out there who are willing to take a risk on a new idea and introduce the world to comedy at its finest. This summer first time writer/director Rawson Marshall Thurber introduced Dodgeball to us and comedy and sports movie fans will immediately fall in love with this picture.

Dodgeball stars Ben Stiller as White Goodman the face behind one of those massive sports clubs that are, “…better than you, and we know it.” Right across the street we have Average Joe’s Gym composed of a group of guys who just hang out, have fun, and, occasionally, work out. The problem arises when Vince Vaughn’s character of Peter La Fleur is $50,000 in the hole via backed taxes. He only finds out when a beautiful lawyer played by the equally beautiful Christine Taylor pays him a visit. Seeking an opportunity to put the eyesore out of business Goodman decides to buy Average Joe’s and build a parking structure. When the group is made aware of a dodgeball tournament in Las Vegas with a championship award of $50,000 the fun really begins.

The beauty of Dodgeball is the fact that it doesn’t take itself, or anything for that matter, too seriously. The movie knows what it is and is written merely for enjoyment. After seeing the film, however, you may wonder why the big awards shows don’t honor comedy as much as drama considering a great comedy can liven anyone’s day up, but a great drama will usually pull you down. Still, award show bashing aside, Dodgeball really is an underdog story. The movie virtually came out of nowhere, it is from a first time writer/director, and doesn’t feature one of the Wayans brothers in-front of the camera or a Coen brother behind, and still manages to be one of the best comedies all year.

Stiller himself has had his ups and downs this year with the average Along Came Polly and the great buddy-comedy Starsky & Hutch. Vince Vaughn basically plays the exact character he plays in all of his movies, but to much success. The calm, collected, cool guy suits him well and just his facial expressions in reaction to Stiller’s over the top fitness guru are enough to have you in tears at some parts of the film. Stiller’s real-life wife, Christine Taylor, emerges once again in one of her husband’s movies but this time she is really able to show the comedic prowess that we can only hope they pass on to their children.

Not to be outdone the supporting cast adds life to the film as well. Standing out among them is the foul-mouthed, sharp tongued Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn) who brings hilarity to every scene he is in until his unfortunate fight with the Luck of the Irish. Stephen Root’s Gordon is a less stressed out version of Milton from Office Space. Alan Tudyk’s Steve the Pirate is also another colorful, and memorable character from the film as a man who really believes he is a pirate.  All in all the entire cast is very strongly placed in their parts and it makes the movie gel all that much better.

Dodgeball is something I like to see during the summer months, an original concept in a sea of over-budgeted flops and inane Hollywood schlock. Dodgeball is a great example of a film that came to fruition because of a good idea and not the belief that dollar signs would follow. If you are looking for a laugh, complete with ball and crotch jokes, give Dodgeball a look, but if you want a feel good story…well, you might also want to check out Dodgeball.