Tropic Thunder is one of the greatest comedic films of all time despite the controversies and criticisms that surround it. Besides the fact that it boasts an ensemble cast of absolute legends, Tropic Thunder masterfully captures the true spirit of satire and self-referential humor. Kirk Lazarus screaming, "I'm a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude," will never not be funny! And while there are certainly times when Tropic Thunder feels overly crude and sophomoric, it’s an objectively hilarious movie that deserves more artistic credit than it usually gets.
Let’s start by talking about the movie’s cast. Every principal cast member, and even the bit ones, bring a specific brand of humor and personality to the script. Ben Stiller, who also directs the film, plays Tugg Speedman. Speedman is a fading star desperate to revitalize his dying career. It’s a scenario that feels a bit cliché, but Stiller’s unique penchant for physical and expressive humor freshens the trope. Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a drug-addicted comedian famous for playing multiple characters in a Fatties film franchise that’s an obvious riff off of Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor projects. Black plays this role perfectly…almost too perfectly If you know what I mean. Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino and Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky are nice complimentary pieces, but lack the brilliance other players dazzle. Danny McBride, Bill Hader, and Nick Nolte thoroughly triumph as hyperbolic caricatures. But no one on the casting sheet shines as brightly as Robert Downey Jr.
His performance in Tropic Thunder is magisterial for so many reasons. First of all, his performance is easily the most entertaining exhibition in the movie. “Peekaboo. I—see—you!” “Man, I don't drop character till I done a DVD commentary.” “I don't read the script. The script reads me.” I could literally keep going, but I’m straying from a point I really want to make. Tropic Thunder is partly a Robert Downey Jr. redemption story. RDJ almost destroys his career and himself in the early 2000s. At this point in his life, he is constantly getting arrested, inhaling every drug on the table, and ostracizing himself from any production studio in Hollywood that might want to hire him. But in 2008, he eventually gets his shit together and becomes one of the brightest actors in the history of Hollywood, partly on the strength of this movie. The way he makes Tropic Thunder part of his comeback is great synergy.
Unfortunately, we can’t earnestly talk about RDJ’s showing in this movie without addressing the film’s Black face controversy. And it’s a shame because people that focus on this aspect of the film are missing out on so much of what makes this movie great. Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian actor who undergoes "pigmentation alteration" to play a black character, is one of the standout elements of the film. It’s a satire, people. It’s not a minstrel! Downey's commitment to making Kirk Lazarus ridiculous, his rib-tickling delivery of lines, and his satirical commentary on method acting epitomize the overarching goal of Tropic Thunder: to poke fun at the people we all secretly hate for being rich and famous!
And while Tropic Thunder is primarily a comedy, it also offers poignant commentary on various elements of Hollywood. It intelligently critiques the shallow nature of blockbuster film production through characters like Les Grossman (Tom Cruise). “You're a great American. This nation owes you a huge debt. Now shut the fuck up and let me do my job!” As outrageous of a statement as that might seem, it’s probably indicative of real life conversations still being had in Hollywood boardrooms. Cruise's unrecognizable (and somewhat ironic) appearance as the foul-mouthed and eccentric Grossman is so effectively scathing because of how true to life it feels. Furthermore, Cruise’s willingness to do the role knowing what it represents lends credence to another objective of the film: to show that there are a lot of a-holes running Hollywood not necessarily named Harvey Weinstein.
Ultimately, Tropic Thunder is an excellent example of how immersive a good metanarrative can be. The moments when RDJ subtly looks into the camera and furtively acknowledges the audience feel like you’re being let in on a secret. The fake trailers at the beginning of the film are a wonderful indictment of Hollywood's tendency to produce formulaic and bombastic films. (We’re looking at you Michael Bay.) The presentation of these trailers and invitations to peek over the fourth wall establish a self-awareness that should be signals to any viewer that they’re about to witness a satirical take on the movie industry. Anybody that misses that must be a ton of fun at parties…
Tropic Thunder is currently streaming on most major platforms.