2008’s Tropic Thunder, while far raunchier and more overblown, is the closest mainstream American cinema of the 2000’s has come to its own Sunset Blvd. While it was marketed as something of a comedy poking fun at war movies, that is only true by technicality. The narrative of the film, as such, has the movie stars making a war film let loose in the jungle where they must 1. survive, but more importantly, 2. battle their egos and the fact that their struggle isn’t just a test designed to help them work as a team in the name of making a better movie. If it pokes fun at war movies, that’s because the film is primarily a mockery of the filmmaking process at large, and more specifically, the actors, producers, directors, agents, and everyone else in Hollywood who combine limited skill with limitless, towering, monumental egos.
Truly, Tropic Thunder works because its righteous comedy fury knows no bounds. This is brutal, caustic satire. The jokes come fast and loose, like spewed acid flailing around and crippling everything in its path. But the most direct target of the film’s script is the movie-making industry and it’s monumentally idiotic and unruly ego. Right from the beginning (after three ear-grinningly accurate mock trailers), we open on a scene from the film within the film, also named Tropic Thunder. The film is over-budget and behind schedule, and it’s only the first week of filming. The opening scene plays like the grandest war action you’ve never seen, but the joke, left wryly unstated, is that the director for some reason is shooting the whole thing, encompassing hundreds of extras and many, many grave dangers, in one take, despite the fact that the camera cuts several times during the scene, thus invalidating a good portion of the logic for filming all at once in the first place.
In addition, several times shots cut to shots from which the camera would logically have to be stationed in the previous shot’s diegetic imagery – there is no way many of the shots are even possible as such, and it plays not like something one could actually direct, but the childish imagination of a director who is all ambition and no talent. It’s a wonderful criticism of auteur-like directorial bravura and delusions of filmmaking grandeur losing out in the face of possibility. Elsewhere we have the now-famous Tom Cruise playing a parody of a certain megalomaniacal movie producer and, in a more subtle touch, an agent played by Matthew McConaughey who obsesses to the point of bodily harm over meaningless details about his egotistical clients.
The film’s primary target, however, is undoubtedly actors. The film’s central trio, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Australian method actor and Oscar favorite, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller, who also directs), and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) are egotistical, conniving, space-age jack-asses. These guys are so far from Earth there’s no coming down, and they are thoroughly, entirely unlikable from beginning to end. Kudos to Stiller and his co-screenwriters for sticking to their guns and fashioning a Hollywood shit-flinging contest that that matches classics like Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve for pure venom.
Of particular note is the role played by Robert Downey Jr, a bad-boy Method actor so committed to the form that he once spent months undercover in a sweatshop to prepare for a role. This character also served as a center of tension surrounding the film; within, Lazarus is so committed to his Method Acting that he believes he can play virtually everyone, including an African-American Vietnam sergeant. He has his skin re-pigmented in an operation and spends the entire film in character, even long after no one is filming them (for the role Downey Jr. wore black-face).
There are two sides to this performance. Firstly, the character is literally a walking stereotype. On the other hand, the “joke” so to speak is aimed squarely at the Hollywood industry for choosing a white male to play a black character and for writing him as a walking stereotype, and at Lazarus for being so consumed by his ego he fully believes he can play a character he clearly should not. Despite this, he goes to every length possible to play out his imagination, based on movie and tv stereotypes, of blackness, speaking in a monstrously offensive drawl and even walking around off-camera in a Black Panther outfit and making nothing of it. He is completely blind to the idea of the racial tensions of his role, because for him nothing matters except that it is he who has the role, and that he can construct a false world around him to aid in his proving that he deserves the role. In other words, the idea of a black role serves only one meaning to him: something for him to possess. And his idea of a black man is not an actual person, but a collection of movie stereotypes he takes for granted as reality.
Ultimately, the film argues, to a movie producer the point of an African-American character in a film is not to depict a human-being but simply to construct their version of that person as a stereotype if they please, or as a money-maker more generally. To this end they aren’t afraid to hire a totally unsuitable actor to play a role as long as he is famous and will likely bring them box office returns. The thought that real people might be bothered by their decisions doesn’t enter into their minds, because they are just objects upon which to construct scripts. They are never their own subjects, and Hollywood always regains control.
It’s a highly spirited, committed character, equal parts scripting, acting, and direction, but it’s certainly not un-problematic. As with any role like this, the idea of a man wearing black-face and acting a stereotype of loud, angry African-American men in authority runs the risk of stomping over any potential critique of this very idea and simply leaving the pure image of a man walking around as a problematic stereotype. Usually this is actually the more intelligent line of thought, and the claim that something was intending to poke fun at stereotypes by perpetuating them is usually a hollow excuse for privileged people to simply put-on stereotypes, to “play” stereotypes, for fun. Typically, the logic for claiming the act as satire is akin to “but it was so over the top no one could take it seriously”, which is about as lazy an argument as could be made to defend stereotyping for comedic effect. For this film however the way it approaches its subject with craft and care, and the ensuing damage done against the idea or act of stereotyping, seems far more substantial than most attempts to “mock” racism by exaggerating it for effect.
Endless wit pervades the whole affair, from its dialogue and characters right down to the way Stiller dresses up his film in full-on actual Vietnam war film regalia, to mirror the film the characters were trying to make, classic lame uses of the same ol’ Creedence songs and all. Later on, camerawork and dialogue combine to mock overtly dramatic scenes frequently shoe-horned into comedy with no humility or good sense. Not everything Tropic Thunder attempts is funny – a good portion of the humor is hopelessly broad, but even then it seems like it’s poking fun at comedy broadness more than giving in to it. Even still, it’s generally committed to the strength of its vision and, surprisingly, reveals new layers of filmmaking critique as the movie we’re watching trucks along at a mighty clip, leaving no stone un-turned and setting its sights on just about everyone in the production process. It’s an all-purpose, utilitarian rabble-rouser. It’s bitter and snarky and approaches Hollywood not from a place of love but from a place of anger. But that’s Hollywood satire for you, and this is a particularly caustic example of it.