Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #17 Tropic Thunder (2008)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining feature where I give YOU—the big-hearted, Saintly, Christ-like and morally perfect Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron—an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about here for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge to the site’s Patreon page.
I am pleased to report that for the second consecutive entry, I will not be writing about the kind of flavorful, kitschy hot garbage I usually cover here but rather the kind of ubiquitous box-office smash that gets covered in less ferociously self-indulgent, amateurish sites. In the last entry I discovered that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind remains a good-ass movie, possibly even more, while in this entry I was pleased to discover that Ben Stiller’s gleefully offensive 2008 show-business satire Tropic Thunder, which recently enjoyed its tenth anniversary, really holds up. It’s very funny, which, at the risk of being controversial, is a winning and all too rare attribute for a broad comedy.
A few weeks before I rematched Tropic Thunder I noticed a Facebook post on a film’s wall with a shot of Robert Downey Jr. in character as Kirk Lazarus, a Russell Crowe-like hardcore thespian so pathologically committed to his craft that he doesn’t break character until he’s recording the DVD commentary and is so committed to playing a black man that he has surgery to darken his skin.
The post expressed horror that as recently as a decade ago, Robert Downey Jr. somehow thought it was still acceptable to do blackface, as did everyone involved with Tropic Thunder and not only was he not penalized professionally but he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
As is often the case, the context for the character and the performance was lost. When thinking about movies like Tropic Thunder or the recent James Gunn Twitter scandal, it’s essential to put things in context.
Alt-Right creep and disingenuous bully Mike Cernovitch created a poisonously, deliberately false context for Gunn’s tweets by depicting them as tongue-in-cheek admissions of guilt from one of Hollywood’s many, many dangerous active pedophiles flaunting their misdeeds and insatiable craving for child sex in winking social media posts, web videos and even party photos.
Having followed Gunn’s career since he wrote 1996’s Tromeo & Juliet—in fact, if I remember correctly, Tromeo & Juliet was the second or third movie I reviewed professionally for The A.V Club—I saw the tweets in a much different context. As you would expect/angrily demand from someone who learned his craft in the fetid sewers of Troma, Gunn trafficked earlier in his career in deliberately offensive, button-pushing humor. Nothing pushes buttons or is more deliberately offensive than comedy rooted in societal taboos.
Gunn’s jokes about pedophilia weren't funny (they seldom are) but only someone wholly unfamiliar with Gunn’s pre-Guardians of the Galaxy history and intent on seeing him in the most negative possible light would see them as anything other than clear-cut jokes.
It’s certainly true that there are some sexual transgressors hiding in plain site, littering their confessional work with teasing hints about their unfortunate criminal predilections, folks like James Toback, John Kricfalusi and R. Kelly, but Gunn is not that kind of artist. And when Gunn unwisely played online shock comic on Twitter seven years ago, when no one particularly gave a fuck who he was, let alone felt the need to monitor his account for posts that could be used against him, no one could have foreseen a future where a sexual predator who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy would be the President, and supported enthusiastically by Evangelicals, but edgy writers and directors could lose gigs directing billion-dollar movies because a toxic political foe weaponized shitty old tweets as a means of punishing Trump critics and using the left’s mania for outrage and overreaction against it.
Context is equally important in light of Tropic Thunder’s deliberate provocations. When analyzing purposefully tasteless, incendiary comedies, we need to ask, “What is the context and who, ultimately, is the target?” In this case, the context is a deliberately over-the-top, offensive lowbrow extravaganza and the target is not African-Americans bur rather the narcissism of movie stars so obsessed with winning awards and pushing themselves creatively that they have no idea how unbelievably offensive and indefensible their actions are.
Kirk’s artificially dark skin is ultimately a sly, sustained stab at the ultimate form of cultural cooption; our Aussie method actor (whom genuine African-American colleague Alpa Chino calls “Kangaroos Jack” more than once) is intent on culturally appropriating the entirety of blackness, not unlike Rachel Dolezal, rather than allowing an actual African-American an opportunity to be represented onscreen authentically.
On a similar note, Tropic Thunder is as free, loose and casual with the “R” word as Quentin Tarantino is with the N word, although when the movie was released a decade ago I’m not even sure if the R word was considered the R word yet. It was not yet as taboo and frowned-upon as it is now when co-writer, director and star Ben Stiller used it a whole bunch in connection with Simple Jack, the Oscar bait-story of a mentally challenged gentleman that his action-hero character hoped would win him a whole bunch of awards but instead attracted a whole lot of deserved ridicule.
Even the famous “never go full R word” scene in which five-time Oscar winner Kirk chastises an Oscar-hungry Tugg for playing a full-on mentally challenged person instead of an autistic man like Dustin Hoffman did in Rain Man is rooted in contempt for the way Hollywood denies the humanity, dignity and agency of mentally challenged people for the sake of winning awards.
It’s jarring hearing the R word dropped so casually in 2018 but the target of the Simple Jack jokes are not the mentally challenged but rather the conventional wisdom that there’s no more direct path to Oscar gold than playing a disabled character and Hollywood’s tendency to romanticize and sentimentalize the lives of the marginalized, to depict them as child-like saints with big hearts and hideous bowl cuts who we can root for but also feel smugly superior to.
Tropic Thunder fires wildly and often successfully in every direction but the primary focus of its satire is the entitlement, arrogance and obliviousness of rich white heterosexual movie makers and a corrupt and mercenary Hollywood establishment. That goes a long way towards making the film’s exquisite bad taste go down surprisingly easy.
When Tropic Thunder came out the press centered on its size and scope. Tropic Thunder was posited as one of the biggest and most star-studded comedies this side of
It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Like Stanley Kramer’s Spruce Goose-sized look at greed, American style, Tropic Thunder wasn’t just an unusually ambitious and expensive comedy, it was a goddamn event.
Like Kramer’s elephantine laugh riot, Tropic Thunder seemingly stars everyone in comedy. There’s co-writer/director Stiller, for starters, as Tugg Speedman, a bankable action who stumbled big with Simple Jack but hopes to pick up the Academy Award he was cruelly denied by starring in a heavyweight cinematic drama based on a memoir written by John "Four Leaf" Tayback (Nick Nolte, essentially playing a sentient rasp) with Apocalypse Now-level ambitions.
Tropic Thunder soars as an extended riff on the filming of Apocalypse Now only instead a genius madman pushing himself and his collaborators past their breaking points in feverish pursuit of true art the movie focuses on a troupe of spoiled, pampered Hollywood movie stars whose plans to create art go awry when Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), their inexperienced director, is killed and they accidentally end up at war with a group of vicious drug dealers the impressively dense Tugg initially mistakes for actors playing Viet Kong.
Jack Black co-stars as Jeff Portnoy, an Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence-like flatulence and fat-suit specialist who hungers for professional respect and, more disturbingly, the sweet, sweet heroin that he is hopelessly addicted to. He’s a broad, pandering comedian beloved by undiscriminating family audiences and fart joke lovers whose life is one long quest for hard drugs.
Black rose to fame as a big, stoned, lovable man-child so there’s something wonderfully transgressive about seeing him play a character whose one note is a desperate hunger for hard drugs that transcends all other concerns and desires.
Tropic Thunder famously starts off with a slew of fake trailers that are funny and audacious in their own right but also indelibly and succinctly establish the careers and personas of its three lead characters. Tugg, for example, is an ambitious idiot whose non-award-winning turn as the title character in Simple Jack comes to haunt him and save him when he’s captured by vicious Asian drug dealers who, in a fortuitous coincidence, know and revere him as Simple Jack, since that’s the only VHS tape they possess, and consequently watch the muddled message movie religiously.
How gloriously fitting that this well-intentioned goober’s heart of Darkness involves playing Simple Jack in a sort of makeshift play for angry yet entertained drug dealers multiple times a day rather than hunting down his own Colonel Kurtz and inner ugliness. Tropic Thunder’s screenplay is full of pitch-perfect, eminently quotable lines. I’m particularly fond of the hilariously maudlin dialogue he delivers as Simple Jack following the death of his mother: “I’ll see you tonight. When I go to bed. In my head movies! But this head movie makes my eyes rain!”
But the most talked about performance in Tropic Thunder doesn’t belong to its leads but rather strategic guest star and Ben Stiller buddy Tom Cruise as studio executive Lev Grossman, a hirsute, rap-loving studio executive who thinks nothing of leaving the cast and crew of the troubled production to die horrible deaths half a world away if it means a small fortune in insurance money.
Cruise’s performance as Les Grossman got an awful lot of attention for understandable reasons. First off, any time Tom Cruise does anything, it’s big fucking news. When Cruise plays a character unlike any he’d ever played before, as he does here, people pay notice, particularly when that character sometimes resembles a Nazi-era caricature of a greedy Jewish businessman with a solid gold cash register where his heart should be and a big gold dollar sign necklace around his neck that I originally mistook for a Star of David. .
At the risk of losing y’all with technical terms, Cruise’s performance here is fucking weird. Really fucking weird. Like, super duper fucking weird. That should not be surprising, because Tom Cruise is a super weird fucking dude but the characters he plays tend to be straight arrows so it’s really fucking weird to see him buried under pounds of make-up that make him look a little like Sacha Baron Cohen in This Is America in that he’s clearly playing a character whose face is also clearly kind of melting in a way that’s more than a little distracting.
Cruise is all about control, so it’s strange and kind of awesome to see him go big and broad and goofy as a black-hearted executive who spends much of his time onscreen screaming high-powered profanity at his underlings and hip hop dancing. Yes, hip hop dancing.
Is it a good performance or a bad performance? I’m not entirely sure but is a very big performance in a very big movie. It’s a goddamn spectacle is what it is. As with Magnolia, Cruise’s performance here strays so far from his usual grim, heroic determination that it feels like he’s exorcising some weird part of his soul onscreen, like we’re watching Cruise’s demonic, maniacal id unleashed.
Ben Stiller has a hit or miss resume as a director as well as an actor. He’s an inveterate creature of show-business, the son of a comedy duo and a youthful prodigy so it’s not surprising that his best and most personal films are rooted in his love-hate relationship with show-business and the crazed narcissists who populate it: the prescient, ice-cold television satire The Cable Guy, celebrity spoof Zoolander and this, his magnum opus, a massive spectacle that’s big on laughs and also just plain big. Epic, even, without losing the plot.
It’s usually pejorative when a movie is compared to a television sketch but Tropic Thunder sometimes struck me as the longest, most expensive and dirty The Ben Stiller Show sketch of all time and I mean that as high praise.
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