The Ben Stiller action-film parody Tropic Thunder is all over the map, but it’s worth enduring the botched gags, formula plotting, and even the racism to marvel at the genius of Robert Downey Jr.
The movie centers on the catastrophic making of a Southeast Asian war epic, and Downey plays one of its stars: Kirk Lazarus, an edgy Aussie modeled on Russell Crowe who gets so deep into his characters that he’s a thorough pain in ass. When we meet Kirk, he’s had his skin surgically darkened to embody a badass Negro circa 1971, the heyday of Richard Roundtree and Fred Williamson. This is thin ice, but with Brandon T. Jackson playing a black actor who expresses constant incredulity at Kirk’s incessant references to his “people,” the stunt has some irony built in.
But there’s a bigger reason the portrait isn’t offensive: As much as Downey sends up the Shafts and Super Flys, he respects the beauty and weight and potency of the archetype. He drops his voice an octave (at least) and what comes out is gorgeous. He really does make a damn fine Negro.
Downey has always had a gift for getting into supernatural synch with his material. In his early comedies, he was breezy, but with a dash of morbidity. (The result of his Hollywood counterculture upbringing?) When it was time to play darker roles like the self-destructive druggie in Less Than Zero, all he had to do was shift the balance—lessen the breeziness, up the morbidity. Even at his most glibly charming, he seemed haunted by self-awareness: He had the best inner B.S. detector in movies. Downey is too serious about his craft to make Kirk Lazarus a second-rater. When he engages his co-star, Speedman (Stiller), about the latter’s failed foray into Oscar-bait territory as a mentally-disabled man. Kirk says Speedman’s mistake was not giving the character more stature: “You never go the full retard.” The scene—the movie’s best by far—isn’t just a brilliant jab at Hollywood’s penchant for noble fools. It’s great because Kirk is, from an acting perspective, right.
Bits like that give Tropic Thunder a wonderful postmodern satirical hook. Stiller and actor Justin Theroux devised the story and brought in Etan Coen to help polish the Method-acting gags (did he write the full retard?), and when the movie works it has a hallucinatory blend of parody and danger—with John Toll’s extraordinarily lush cinematography evoking real Vietnam War epics. When the film set collapses into prima donna bickering, Nick Nolte’s hilariously grizzled John “Four Leaf” Tayback (who wrote the Vietnam memoir on which the film-within-a-film is based), tells the director (Steve Coogan) to take these pansified thespians into the jungle and turn them into real soldiers. Unfortunately, they touch down near a real Thai drug-smuggling camp, and it takes a while for them to realize those bullets being fired at them are real. The fizz goes out of the movie, though, when a character steps on a mine and chunks of his body rain down—not so funny in a world where IED victims come home in body bags every week.
Jack Black makes little of a bum role as a Chris Farley–like junkie, but as Speedman’s agent, Matthew McConaughey has lots of gonzo pep but never finds a rhythm. The show-off cameo is by Tom Cruise in a bald cap as an obscenity-spouting Jewish mogul. He’s funny, but less because of anything he does than because it’s Tom Cruise playing gross. Watching Cruise rant and wave his arms, you can see the tension he carries in his shoulders. He never loosens up enough to inhabit a character—any character.
But Downey is loose as a goose: His flexibility—physical and emotional—is inspiring. His Kirk craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s a black actor playing a black soldier. And Downey craves authenticity so deeply that you want to believe he’s an Aussie actor playing a black actor playing a black soldier. This is a trivial movie, but the performance means so much.
There are two possible avenues for the artist in winter: rage against the withering of the flesh, or, like Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, stick with exploring youngish dilemmas from a wry-geezer’s vantage, via flesh that is emphatically non-withered (toned, hot, horny). Allen’s latest film features a narrator (Christopher Evan Welsh) who relays, in even tones, the tale of dishy twentysomething American friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), with opposite philosophies of life, and how their respective worldviews are tested over the course of a summer in Spain by a lusty painter (Javier Bardem) and his tempestuous, gun-toting ex-wife (Penélope Cruz). Allen doesn’t waste much time dramatizing those worldviews. The narrator simply announces that Vicky—in Spain to study “every aspect of Catalan culture”—believes in order and commitment and is poised to marry a yuppie and move to Greenwich, Connecticut, and that Cristina is spontaneous, unruly, and commitment-phobic. When Juan Antonio (Bardem) strides up to them in a restaurant and invites them to fly off with him in a private plane (“Life is shit, life is full of pain,” why not pleasure ourselves while we may?), Vicky gasps at his effrontery, while Cristina puffs out her pillowy lips and eats the swarthy suitor with her eyes. Then they’re all on that plane: Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, and, of course, the attentive narrator, always spelling out what’s in our heroines’ heads.