‘Tropic Thunder’: The Best Fake War Film about Hollywood

People say that whenever Hollywood makes a film about Hollywood or the art of filmmaking, the Academy eats it right up. In the previous years, there was Argo and The Artist (which I have still haven’t seen yet, full disclosure), and most recently, La La Land, a movie which I didn’t hate with a passion as many of my friends did. I will have to confess though that movies that are about the movie/TV/theater industry, either centrally or peripherally, are my personal catnip and that I’m equally guilty of having a soft spot for movies that address both the magic and machinations behind the creation of art. Clouds of Sils Maria, for one, was one of my favorite movies of 2014, and I enjoyed Birdman tremendously. And while films like Hail, Caesar! had its obvious flaws, I would have been even less forgiving towards it if it weren’t for its subject matter, Hollywood during the 1950s.

It’s always fun to gain an insider’s look into the entertainment industry via movies, and it’s even more enjoyable when those movies aren’t afraid to poke fun or skewer the industries in question. Tropic Thunder is one such film and it’s been a film that I’ve been meaning to watch for some time, ever since Hugh Jackman joked about the multiple layers of roles Robert Downey Jr. had to play for this movie (“…an American playing an Australian playing an African-American…”) during his 2009 Oscars opening monologue.

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Image by DreamWorks Pictures

Directed by Ben Stiller, who also co-wrote the screenplay for this movie, Tropic Thunder is about a group of actors in a Vietnam War movie, who are forced to become the soldiers they play when they are besieged by a heroin-producing gang in the Golden Triangle. The movie gleefully lampoons the greed of the movie industry, the insecurities of actors, and the callous and casual ruthlessness of Hollywood executives, all the while delivering the exotic locations, glamorous action sequences, explosions, and swelling scores that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood’s war films. It’s a heady, rollicking ride of action, satire, adventure, cinematic homages, and f-bombs from start to finish, and it’s arguably one of best films Ben Stiller has directed.

Tropic Thunder also has a strong comedic cast, featuring Stiller himself, Jack Black, Steve Coogan, Bill Hader, as well as actors who were not known especially for their work in comedy, like Matthew McConaughey, Robert Downey Jr., and Nick Nolte. Downey in particular has a terrific, meaty role as a methodist actor who doesn’t drop character until “he finishes the DVD commentary” and who goes so far for a role that he even undergoes a controversial procedure of dyeing his skin to play an African-American. But it’s Tom Cruise’s performance that, surprisingly, really stands out in the film. We always knew that Cruise was a good dancer, but we didn’t know that it would be so mesmerizing to watch Cruise let his freak flag fly. The part where Cruise dances to Flo Rida’s She Hit the Floor while saying “Big dick playa!” to Matthew McConaughey (with a bald cap, fake chest hair, and giant prosthetic hands, no less) is perhaps the film’s crowning achievement and a gift to humanity that humanity never knew it truly needed.

Other personal favorites of movies about movies/TV/theater (aside from Tropic Thunder):

All About Eve, Sunset BoulevardDay for Night, Network, Cinema Paradiso, The Player, and Quiz Show.

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