Does Robert Downey Jr.’s Most Divisive Role Still Hold Up Today?
Tropic Thunder lampooned 2000s Hollywood in a way that feels surprisingly relevant to 2020s Hollywood.
The film industry has always been laser-focused on prestige. Actors want acclaim, filmmakers want respect, and studios want money. War films are often the best way to make everyone happy. They’ve long been a staple in Hollywood, especially since Apocalypse Now modernized the genre in the ‘70s, but they’re also notoriously difficult to produce.
War dramatizations tend to attract some of the industry’s biggest names, but that also brings in the egos and overblown budgets that can transform these projects into pressure cookers. It doesn’t help that many of these films are filmed in the most unforgiving landscapes known to man. In a way, making them can be like going to war. But the greater the suffering, the greater the reward... at least for the self-serious actors hoping for an Oscar nomination.
Ben Stiller wasn’t the first to notice the hypocrisy and hubris of this lucrative subgenre, but he was the first to lampoon it so brilliantly. His 2008 satire Tropic Thunder follows a hapless cast and crew as they struggle to complete a Vietnam War-era epic, and it dips into identity discourse, bonkers action, and toilet humor. The film’s history is a long one, and discourse about its most controversial aspects persists even 15 years later. It’s unlikely Tropic Thunder could be made in our uber-earnest, post-post-modern age, but it’s still an enlightening if absurd peek into the Hollywood machine.
Stiller is Tugg Speedman, an action star on the outs. Speedman was once among the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, but his attempts to transition to more “serious” fare have made him a pariah. He’s now helming Tropic Thunder, a film based on a world-famous memoir. The project is his last chance to get back on top — and hopefully score a coveted Oscar nomination — but production isn’t exactly going to plan.
With an unfit director behind the camera, a supporting cast full of prima donnas, and a studio executive breathing down their necks, Tropic Thunder is on its way to production purgatory. A last-ditch effort to save the film finds Speedman stranded in the jungle with his cast: Academy darling Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), drug-addicted comedian Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), and straight-laced thespian Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). They set out to reshoot Tropic Thunder guerilla-style, and while their odds of success are slim, they commit to the task with a hilariously deluded fervor.
Downey’s Kirk Lazarus is one of Tropic Thunder’s many scene-stealers. As a method actor who darkens his skin to portray a Black character, his entire performance is an impeccable parody of real-life actors who “transform” for a role. That said, it remains one of the film’s more contentious choices. Stiller also came under fire for his portrayal of Simple Jack, a mentally disabled character meant to parody prestige films like Forrest Gump and I Am Sam. These roles won’t go down well with everyone, but Tropic Thunder was always meant to poke fun at the filmmakers who will do anything for accolades, and on that front, it definitely succeeds.
If anything, Tropic Thunder is a time capsule. An occasionally offensive one, sure, but never for no reason. The film hinges on Stiller’s lived experience, and it’s one he shares with a cast and crew that’s stacked to the nines. Iron Man 2 writer Justin Theroux helped Stiller pen the story, while the cast breathed life into Hollywood’s most painfully specific pitfalls. Together, they skewered the heart of the film industry, bringing a laundry list of unspoken issues to light and delivering some iconic humor in the process.
Despite its flaws and sophomoric humor, Tropic Thunder remains endlessly quotable. It might have become a guilty pleasure in the intervening years, but it’s still worth the watch today, at the very least to see Tom Cruise twerking to “Low.”