Do you know what we don’t talk about enough? Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for using blackface. Now I don’t necessarily want to criticise Robert Downey Jr or the film itself. I also don’t necessarily want to give it a pass either. I just think the fact that the academy thought it was Oscar-worthy is a bit weird, right? I mean, how often do they nominate a comic performance for anything? Then they pick the one where a white dude is acting like a Black dude? I find it weird. In terms of the film, I get what RDJ and Ben Stiller were getting at. It’s the lengths that actors go to fully immerse themselves into a role. Officially, RDJ is in blackface but it’s more complicated than that. The character isn’t a Black man but a white actor playing a Black character. I guess you can argue that it raises questions and adds to the conversation. At least more than something like Little Britain did. But, at the same time, you have to ask if nominating the actor for an Oscar legitimises the practice more. Instead of just being a humorous footnote in history.
Whatever you might think about the way RDJ looked in this film, it’s clear that he was the thing that made it the success that it was. The majority of the praise went in his direction and, in all likelihood, he was the part that people remembered the most. Okay, him and Tom Cruise in a fat suit. As a whole, this reads like every other Ben Stiller film up to that point. Stiller and Jack Black are playing characters that we’ve seen them play before. Steve Coogan is playing a mixture of himself and Alan Partridge. Danny McBride is pure Danny McBride. It just feels kind of obvious.
But I guess it does try to do something interesting. Just like Zoolander was poking fun at the fashion industry, Tropic Thunder is taking potshots at Hollywood. There are some fun ideas at play here but they never really play out as strongly as they could. There is a ring of truth around the conversation between Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman and RDJ’s Kirk Lazarus about mental illness in films. However, it just ends up being played for cheap laughs. The character of Lazarus is meant to be a parody of method actors, like Daniel-Day Lewis, who completely inhabit every role they play. It’s instantly recognisable and has some funny potential. It just ends up falling a bit flat when you reach what is meant to be an emotional climax.
It’s not that this film isn’t funny because there are plenty of great moments. It’s just that the longer it goes on, the thinner the joke gets. The film’s opening is by far the strongest section. The brief glimpses that we get of the fake films trailers and adverts are fantastic. It just feels as though things start to go downhill pretty quickly. Jack Black never really gets anything to do. Ben Stiller is playing a slightly more intelligent version of Zoolander. Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel are fine but relegated to the straight-man role. It just all feels unimaginative. When a film gets his biggest laughs from blackface and a fat suit then you can’t help but feel that it’s been slightly overhyped over the years.
Tropic Thunder does a decent job of doing a war film parody and it tries to bring some interesting ideas to the table. It just never feels as though it lives up to its potential. It falls on tired stereotypes and themes that we’ve seen countless times before. I know that this film has a great reputation but, watching it again now, it’s hard to see why.