Fifteen years later "Tropic Thunder" is a flawed comedy that we're still trying to agree on

Robert Downey Jr.'s outrageous performance keeps it in the discourse, and asks us to think about why we're laughing

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 19, 2023 4:00PM (EDT)

Tropic Thunder movie poster at the Los Angeles premiere at Mann's Village Theater on August 11, 2008 in Los Angeles, CA. (DAVID CROTTY/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Tropic Thunder movie poster at the Los Angeles premiere at Mann's Village Theater on August 11, 2008 in Los Angeles, CA. (DAVID CROTTY/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

It doesn't take much effort to encounter reminders of Robert Downey, Jr.'s work in "Tropic Thunder," no matter what year we're in. Clips featuring Downey as Kirk Lazarus are perennially popular GIFs, especially those featuring rolling transcripts of the character's most outrageous lines. Benign jesters and warty trolls alike offer them up as provocative replies to any issue you can think of.

The memes and references to "Tropic Thunder" were especially prolific over the past week, however, and for reasons having nothing to do with the 2008 film's 15th anniversary, a threshold it officially crossed on Aug.13.

Scroll through a few threads debating whether Bradley Cooper should wear a prosthetic nose to play legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein, and there'd be the face of Downey's Lazarus as Black Army Sergeant Lincoln Osiris.

Not long after Cooper's "Jewface" controversy died down, another split shot of Judy Garland in horrendous Blackface next to a photo of her as Dorothy Gale rocketed around the internet, prompting rebuttals in the form of Downey as Osiris next to a picture of him as Tony Stark.

Downey as Kirk Lazarus as Lincoln Osiris bobs to the surface of the online furor stream for any reason whatsoever. A few weeks back, there was a hot debate over whether his work in "Tropic Thunder" is better than his acclaimed acting in "Oppenheimer," and for a time you couldn't get away from GIFs of a painted Downey growling about being "a dude playin' a dude, disguised as another dude."

In February there was much groaning over Ben Stiller's decision to take a MAGA nut's bait. The man insisted the actor-director stop apologizing for "Tropic Thunder" and Stiller, currently lauded for his Apple TV+ drama "Severance,"  felt a need to reply that he never did – generating a New York Post headline. Surfacing that image doesn't require any news hook at all, of course, since there's always somebody like Megyn Kelly wondering why she can't get away with supporting blackface on national TV while Downey wore it for a whole movie.

Fifteen years after its release, "Tropic Thunder" holds the strange legacy of being a rallying point for the wrongheaded, and a representation of what not to do and how not to be, both intentionally and thoughtlessly. People with drastically opposing political, social and cultural views share the opinion that it is objectively hilarious.

Where they may differ is which gags they find especially funny and, more to the point, why. This is where the question of whether "Tropic Thunder" truly withstands the test of time or meets satire's quality standard, whatever that is, gets heated.

"Tropic Thunder" was directed, produced and co-written by Stiller, along with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen. Stiller also stars as Tugg Speedman, an action star whose fortunes were derailed by his poor choice to play Simple Jack, a man with a mental disability who can talk to animals.

"Tropic Thunder" is now commonly understood as a maximalist shock comedy wrapped in a fig leaf quilt.

To resurrect his career he pulls the classic Hollywood gambit of starring in a bombastic Vietnam War flick, roping in Jack Black's Jeff Portnoy (modeled on Chris Farley) and Downey's Lazarus, the ensemble's multiple-Oscar-winning heavyweight. Very quickly the production goes awry, and the core ensemble finds itself facing down people armed with actual guns instead of props.

Each man embodies a version of Hollywood's self-aggrandizing pompousness. Portnoy is best known for a series of movies featuring him as an assortment of flatulent characters in fat suits, reminiscent of Eddie Murphy's Klumps franchise – if that starred Chris Farley. Speedman's "Simple Jack" lampoons award season-bait like "Rain Man," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" and "Forrest Gump," albeit with none of the care Stiller and the writers devote to Downey's role.

By the way, this aspect of the never-ending cycle dragging us back to all "Tropic Thunder"-related discourse demonstrates why likening Cooper's appearance in "Maestro" to Downey's character is a spurious act of trolling. Cooper is making an honest effort to approximate Bernstein's physical appearance, consulting the artist's family as he developed the part.

Downey's Kirk Lazarus is a fiction based on terrible and encouraged behavior, and it is meant to shock and offend. Stiller mitigates his awfulness by having Brandon T. Jackson's rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino remind Lazarus time and again that he isn't Black, that what he's doing is immoral — the aspect of the character Downey has previously explained he was drawn to.

Lazarus' whole being satirizes the obscene extremes to which method actors go. Not content to don makeup, he undergoes a surgical procedure to darken his pigmentation all over his body.  Later the white Australian actor cosplaying as a Black person lectures his actual Black co-star on how denigrating the N-word is to "their people," a jaw-slackener completed by him quoting the lyrics to "The Jeffersons" theme song.

It's all an extreme exercise blackface's monstrosity  — including here — and to remind the audience that Hollywood normalizes it. To a large degree that works. But not completely since, at the end of the day, it's still playing blackface for entertainment.

"It was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie," Downey told Joe Rogan when he asked the actor about "Tropic Thunder" on a 2020 episode of his podcast.  "And 90% of my Black friends are like, 'Dude, that was great.'"

As for the other 10%, Downey said, "You know, I can't disagree with them. But I know where my heart was."

This conversation, along with all the others that keep recurring, is a residual effect of the equal opportunity offender age of comedy, a time when Stiller thrived as part of the group colloquially dubbed the Frat Pack.

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In 2008, Stiller broadcast far and wide that he screened "Tropic Thunder" for representatives of the NAACP and a few Black journalists. A decade and a half later that detail is cited as a shield among those who allege to have asked their Black friends (who may or may not also be their Canadian girlfriends) if they have permission to do and say things they shouldn't.

A few beats before Downey utters that quote, he also jokes that the role allowed him "to be Black for a summer, in my mind, so there's something in it for me." That lands differently now than it did in January 2020, months before the names Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor changed what it meant to "be Black for a summer."

Changing eras recast our interpretations of some entertainment. Like other movies created and executed with the best of intentions in their day that show their cracks in the fullness of time, "Tropic Thunder" is now commonly understood as a maximalist shock comedy wrapped in a fig leaf quilt. The question is whether you're in on the joke.

Scoffing at that observation is natural since it is overwhelmingly embraced as hilarious, including by many Black folks, but certainly not all. Also, as Jamie Foxx points out to Rogan in an earlier appearance on his show, "Here's the thing: we f**k with Robert Downey Jr. Like, that's our guy." (Also: Jamie Foxx is one guy speaking on behalf of millions he didn't consult.)

What's most telling about the movie's legacy is that both boosters and detractors keep returning to the actual poster model of film's controversy, Downey Jr. in blackface, while conveniently skipping over intentional fouls like Tom Cruise's Les Grossman, a pitch-perfect send-up of a greedy egomaniacal studio boss that also drew "Jewface" accusations, or overlooking choices like the script's two-dimensional Asian thugs or a whiff of gay panic played for laughs late.

"Tropic Thunder" remains the uncommon broad comedy that invites consideration of both the jokes that were considered as thoroughly as three privileged white guys could, and the ones they failed to.

The bit deemed most offensive in 2008 that barely comes up in 2023 is the grotesque rendering of Simple Jack, and Lazarus' often-quoted speech summing up why it killed Speedman's career.

That monologue uses a slur referring to people with developmental disabilities multiple times on top of describing roles of its ilk in pejorative terms including calling him slow and stupid. But the line that pops up most frequently is the kicker: "Never go full (expletive)."

Somehow, though, "Tropic Thunder" remains the uncommon broad comedy that invites consideration of both the jokes Stiller, Theroux and Cohen considered as thoroughly as three privileged white guys could, and the ones they failed to. One might also ponder the moral incongruity of Downey embracing an Oscar nomination for a performance designed to skewer such validations of reprehensible acts committed in the name of exercising one's craft.

This is part of the reason that "Tropic Thunder" fans celebrate and lament that it could never be made in 2023, and reactions to Cooper's "Maestro" trailer back up that claim. Holding space for all artistic possibilities, however, means considering the more layered conversations people are having today outside of angry social media arenas might yield something just as outrageous, provocative and more thoughtful than whatever passed for edgy thinking 15 years ago.

People would be offended by that rendering too.

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That is dark comedy's lot when it's taken to extremes. Channeling loathsome behavior and practices into comedy can never be acceptable to some regardless of the intent behind the action. Others will twist the joke's objective to validate their prejudice or use it to call other artists hypocrites, which is enough of a reason to steer clear of no-go areas "Tropic Thunder" dove into face-first.

Many more people can simply take the movie for the mixed comedy bag that it is, enjoying the sure-shot laughs while examining why we're laughing or why the filmmakers believe we should be.

Maybe that can take some of the the oxygen out of future furors over who gets to play whom unless the choice is truly egregious. There will always be some dude playin' a dude, disguised as another dude people don't want him to play, and doing it poorly. "Tropic Thunder" gives the world an illustration to point to that we can all understand, subject to vastly disparate interpretations.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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