Parodies, spoofs and stories that feature a meta approach based on real life incidents or people, have now become a common form of storytelling in Hollywood. It’s a successful concept as it keeps the story relevant to current events and trends. Being ‘meta’ also has the advantage of allowing the filmmakers to make references or tongue in cheek statements about real world people that would otherwise be considered scandalous. Many franchises have been built around the concept of spoofing trends within movies such as the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise, as well as other one-off movies that mock other movies. While those franchises have been supremely successful, they often rely on a lot of suspension of the logical to be enjoyed, and employ a lot of toiler humour, with almost no story. So it was very refreshing when a movie came along that has all those elements of a satire, however, maintained its own originality and spoof on its own with a fully developed story.
Ben Stiller, better known for comedies and slapstick humour, steps slightly out of his comfort zone to direct a movie based on movie trends, and appropriately satirizes a variety of established Hollywood concepts. ‘Tropic Thunder’ gathered a massive star cast, in roles that were obviously fashioned after other well known Hollywood stars and filmmakers, while still maintaining its own storyline and providing a fun and entertaining experience, as well as some amazing surprises for its audience.
The Movie Within The Movie
‘Tropic Thunder’ is a movie that tells the story of a group of actors, supposed to be shooting for a war movie, who inadvertently find themselves in a real warzone while still under the false impression of shooting for their movie. Things hit the fan when real life drug dealers become involved as the actors have to come together in an attempt to use their fake film training to overcome a very real, life threatening situation.
The main star cast of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black portray caricatures of real life actors that are well outside of the scope of reality in their own ways. Fading action star Tug Speedman (Ben Stiller) agrees to star in a war drama with other big name actors in an attempt to revitalize his stalled career. Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) agrees to take on the role of a black actor, undergoing experimental surgery in order to darken his skin tone, and take on the demeanor of an African American war sargeant, much to the offense of the world at large. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) a slapstick comedian, also addicted to drugs tries to change his image by agreeing to be in a war epic to try to change public perception of himself as an actor. The three larger than life superstars come together in a fictional movie, which is the movie within ‘Tropic Thunder’, while the film itself is about how these actors find themselves in a real warzone and attempt to survive.
Ben Stiller as Tug Speedman As Tom Cruise / Dustin Hoffman
Stiller plays Tug Speedman, which seems to be an amalgamation of the real life actors Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. Around the time ‘Tropic Thunder’ was released, Cruise’s star wasn’t shining as brightly as it had known to be; with ‘War Of The World’s & ‘Mission Impossible III’ not generating as much box office returns as expected. Speedman follows a similar characterization of an almost has-been action hero who isn’t as famous for his usual body of work as he was previously known to be. Trying to restart his career, Speedman does a movie where he portrays a mentally disabled character, such as Dustin Hoffman in ‘The Rain Man’, which unfortunately goes terribly wrong for the actor. Stiller has maintained, that while he meant no offence to the disabled community, the point of this characterization was to mock how other actors dive into the role of disabled characters, and tread a fine line between imitation and an honest portrayal of characters who are mentally and emotionally challenged. In real life, ‘Tropic Thunder’s biggest controversy was this portrayal of Stiller’s character as retarded, as it did not sit will with Mentally Challenged Support groups.
Robert Downey Jr. As Kirk Lazarus As Russell Crowe
Downey Jr. portrays the character of Kirk Lazarus, an extremely obsessive method actor, who goes overboard with every role. His latest attempt is to portray an African American character, which creates a scandal within the story of the film, and even some real life controversy. Obviously a white actor playing a black one was one of much scandal within the story of ‘Tropic Thunder’. Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Lazarus can be likened to real life actor Russell Crowe, also an Australian like Lazarus in the film, and also having had his share of physical confrontations with Paparazzi, as Lazarus is shown to have in the movie. Stiller, who also wrote the film, points out that this was in an attempt to drive home a point of how some actors go to the extreme for a role. While a Caucasian actor playing an African American is horribly offensive, the silliness of it is pointed out within the movie as well, as a comment to how diversity and inclusion is an issue in Hollywood. Constantly actors of other ethnicities, are passed off as characters of different ethnicities, when an actor portraying their own ethnicity could easily have been achieved. A biggest example of this was the controversy stirred up recently with Emma Stone being cast as a Half Asian character in Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’, when she looks nothing like the part. Even though it was made years before, this kind of casting is exactly the statement being made by ‘Tropic Thunder’ and the character of Kirk Lazarus.
Jack Black As Jeff Portnoy as Eddie Murphy / Martin Lawrence
Black plays a comedic actor who is most recognizable for multiple roles in a movie where the character Portnoy, plays all the characters in a family. Something most infamously done by real life actor Eddie Murphy in ‘The Nutty Professor’. This portrayal is another side of the Hollywood trinity of successful actors, one from the comedic genre, known for potty humour and cheap jokes. The comparison to Martin Lawrence can be ascertained based on an incident where Lawrence had an infamous public encounter after suffering exhaustion or issues with drugs; it was never determined one way or the other. While comedic actors may not be winning all the awards in Hollywood, there is a direct link between the stress and pressure involved in comedy, than other genres of TV or movies. Many comedians have been revealed as suffering from depression or attempting to fill a void in their lives through other, harmful means. Black’s portrayal of Portnoy is supposed to expose that side of the industry with a character that, while silly, is just a little pathetic and sad, completely contrary to the image portrayed by them to the rest of the world.
Being Meta While Already Being Meta
As if being satirical about real life Hollywood, by making a movie where the story revolves around making a movie wasn’t enough for the filmmakers, ‘Tropic Thunder’ also features a ‘making of’ documentary. This fake documentary acts as a behind the scenes look into the making of the fictional film, that’s the story in the actual film, ‘Tropic Thunder’. The video, done by co-writer, Justin Theroux, is fascinatingly ridiculous and just as amazing in it’s attempt of peeling the onion’s layers that becomes ‘Tropic Thunder’. The rockumentary was applauded for essentially being a form of viral marketing that further enhances the universe created in the movie, by blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
A Surprise For The Fans
As mentioned earlier, Tom Cruise’s public image and worth as an actor at the time of ‘Tropic Thunder’ was waning. Add to this his very public implosion of couch-jumping on Oprah over exuberance of his marriage with Katie Holmes, or his very public boasting of Scientology, his preferred faith, which turned off a major section of the audience. Cruise was alienating his fans, and needed to get them back fast. This way of doing this was to appear as a complete surprise in the role of a movie studio executive, Les Grossman, in ‘Tropic Thunder’.
This role was unlike anything Cruise had done in his career till then, and even now. With prosthetics that aged him, added weight, and a bald cap and large prosthetic hands, Grossman was a foul mouthed bad tempered business man who threw vulgarities up on the screen which would make a sailor blush. Seeing Tom Cruise like this shocked audiences in the best way possible, as it made the actor more approachable and less of an up tight religious fanatic, as he’d come across at the time. Even the credits song featured Cruise, in full make up as Grossman, dancing dirty to a hip hop track as the credits rolled. It was a surprising turn by Cruise, and may have humbled him a lot to audiences who may have been veering away from the actor’s films.
‘Tropic Thunder’ won many awards for its fun and enjoyable story and performances. Stiller’s direction was appreciated with such a massive star cast and a movie that was very large in scale. ‘Tropic Thunder’ successfully parodied many concepts within Hollywood, with big name Hollywood stars themselves, giving itself a lot more credit and legitimacy than other spoofs that are mostly unknowns and done on a much smaller scale.