I am usually not a fan of the antics of Ben Stiller. Aside from the “Dodgeball” most of Stiller’s films are insufferable. A friend of mine once described the unreasonably popular “Meet the Fockers” series as just 3 separate 2-hour installments of Ben Stiller suffering, and despite my best efforts, I have yet to come up with a more accurate means of representing them on my own. I just do not have the required constitution to endure more forced awkward situations deriving from the fact that his name is Gaylord and Robert DeNiro doesn’t like him for being meek. His brand of comedy is usually difficult to get through, but like everything in life, there are always exceptions to the rules.
“Tropic Thunder” is a film that, to me, breaks the mold. I find it often gets lost among the many comedic hits of the mid-2000s, such as “Step Brothers”, “Wedding Crashers”, and “Anchorman”, and this is likely due to the fact that it bears minimal resemblance to those other films aside from the possession of humor. It is a high budget affair with more special effects and mainstream star power in its cast than a typical comedic picture. Those films are pure comedies with plots that are jokes within themselves, whereas “Tropic Thunder”, by contrast, is actually a work of satire, with legitimate commentary on the film industry itself. “Tropic Thunder” is the story about the filming of a movie, called “Tropic Thunder”, which goes terribly wrong.
This movie plays on many tropes of Hollywood, including the over-saturation of war movies, action stars trying to prove they are talented by trying and failing to succeed in dramatic roles, and of course, how the entire industry is fueled by greed and cocaine. The film utilizes hyper-absurdity to make commentary on just how ridiculous the self-important culture of Hollywood really is. Whether it be Matthew McConaughey’s agent literally going to the ends of the Earth to have the studio fulfill his clients contractual demand for a TiVo, or Brandon T. Jackson’s Alpa Chino only doing the film to advertise his new energy drink, every character has such a narrow view of what matters, yet will do absolutely anything to achieve their goals. Tom Cruise’s Les Grossman is a testament to that. He is a ruthless producer who is willing to sell out the life of his stars in order to collect insurance money, and amazingly enough, he is not even the outrageous human being in the film. While I am on the subject, I should give special recognition to Cruise for his performance. It is only a minor role but it is among the funniest I have ever seen.
The most extreme take we bear witness to is Robert Downey Jr., who plays Kirk Lazarus, a psychopathic method actor who has the art of winning critical allocates down to a science. Kirk is a blonde Australian, but undergoes a skin pigmentation transplant to play a black character in “Tropic Thunder”, thus causing Robert Downey Jr. to be in blackface for a majority of his time on screen. His role and performance are met with controversy because of the blackface, and if this is a deal-breaker for you, I understand. If you have a problem with an actor in blackface, I bet you must also have a problem with an actor playing a Nazi or a villain of any type. It should not matter if there is nuance to the performance or if the message is that a person like that should be viewed with scorn. No film should depict bad acts ever. It is wholly unacceptable!
Yes, blackface is racist. That much is a given. Bad things are bad. It does not make an ounce of logical sense to hold it against an actor for performing the heinous acts of a character. After all, it is only acting. This coincides with the issue of censorship and allowing the freedom to explore different avenues of discussion. Similar to offensive jokes that utilize shock humor, Robert Downey Jr.’s role hits with the same sort of force. Your morality, no matter how widely accepted it is, should not be the threshold for what is acceptable in speech. Similarly, it is not an endorsement of the action itself to laugh at something that is beyond the scope of behaviors society deems acceptable. Do not get stuck on the fact that the joke is too offensive that you miss the punchline, because you may find that the joke itself is actually advocating for exactly the type of decency you think is missing in the first place. And even if it is not, instead of censoring the speech, simply do not engage with it.
If you choose to dissect the decision, you will find that his character is purposefully being outrageous to prove a point. Actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale, who so fully immerse themselves in roles and delve into “the process”, become empty sacks with no real person occupying their bodies, only the roles they play. They reek of pretentiousness, are ignorant to who they might be offending, and are often unaware of just how out of touch with humanity they really are despite always being rewarded for being so. This role provides poignant commentary on a legitimate real-world phenomenon and fully basks in the satirical nature of the film.
Frankly, “Tropic Thunder” is really funny. Comedy films sole reason for existing is to entertain the masses, and on that front, this film emphatically delivers. The jokes consistently land and there are a number of moments where you might tear up from the humor. It is just a bonus that there is a message to absorb as well. If you want to turn your mind off and laugh at a crazy story, you will enjoy this movie. Just shut up and laugh.
I give “Tropic Thunder” an underappreciated 8.8 out of 10
Directed by: Ben Stiller
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Bill Hader
Runtime: 1 Hour and 47 Minutes Z