In February 2023, the actor and director Ben Stiller caused a minor stir on Twitter. Responding to a well-wisher who was asking him not to apologise for his 2008 comedy Tropic Thunder. “Please stop apologising for doing this movie,” the fan wrote. “It was and still is funny AF... Even funnier now with cancel culture the way it is.”
Stiller, who possibly receives hundreds of such messages on a daily basis, decided to respond publicly to this one: “I make no apologies for Tropic Thunder,” he said. “Don’t know who told you that. It’s always been a controversial movie since when we opened. Proud of it and the work everyone did on it.”
This represented something of a change of attitude since 2018 when, a decade after his extremely funny film opened, Stiller addressed some of the perpetual fuss that surrounded his picture. “Actually Tropic Thunder was boycotted 10 years ago when it came out, and I apologised then,” he said. “It was always meant to make fun of actors trying to do anything to win awards. I stand by my apology [and] the movie.”
Stiller should be congratulated, rather than condemned, for his guts in making a film that defies any definition of good taste. Not only has it been attacked for containing jokes about blackface, mental retardation, the overweight and homosexuals, but Hollywood’s biggest star appears uncredited in a role that requires him to don – for want of a better word – “Jewface”.
Yet none of this is done for gratuitous shock value, but with a biting satirical intent that seems even more relevant now, 15 years after its initial release. Perhaps only today can its boldness and daring be fully appreciated, even as the cries of horror and outrage grow louder. It makes even the likes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia look tame.
When Stiller began his film career in 1987, with a small role in Steven Spielberg’s Japanese prisoner-of-war drama Empire of the Sun, he noted that there was an inevitable gulf between the privations that the actors were undergoing on screen and the lavish creature comforts of five-star hotel and chauffeur-driven travel that they enjoyed off it.
This was the status quo, but Stiller, with a comedian’s keen eye for incongruity, also observed that pictures like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down sent their A-list stars to military boot camp before filming commenced. They would then return, solemnly declaring that the experience had changed them forever before resuming their lives of luxury.
He collaborated with the writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen on a script that would satirise the pomposity and self-importance of actors, but also of the industry itself – everyone from agents to directors to studio executives would find themselves not-so-affectionately lampooned. The film would concern a group of egotistical, insecure actors making a Vietnam war film and refusing to believe that they were caught in a real-life conflict, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Stiller himself would play the lead, Tugg Speedman, a washed-up action movie star seeking to expand his range, with disastrous, but hilarious, results.
After the screenplay was completed, Stiller set about recruiting an A-list cast to play his A-list characters. He assembled a starry list of names including Jack Black, Steve Coogan and – subbing for Owen Wilson, who left the film – Matthew McConaughey. But the trickiest role was that of Kirk Lazarus, an intense, multi-Oscar-winning Australian method actor who, in one of the film’s drollest lines, “[doesn’t] drop character until [he’s] done the DVD commentary.”
The central joke is that Lazarus is so committed to his part that he has his skin artificially darkened so that he can play an African-American soldier, much to the horror of a genuine African-American actor. It was audacious, potentially tasteless and, even in an era before cancel culture had taken hold, something that Stiller entered into in the full knowledge that it would be hugely controversial. What he needed was a fearless actor who could not only handle the considerable thespian demands of the role, but was unafraid to walk into the firing line of the inevitable outrage that it would cause.
Enter Robert Downey Jr. Although the Iron Man and Oppenheimer star is now firmly ensconced at the top of the Hollywood A-list, back in 2008 he was slowly rebuilding his career. He’d appeared in a variety of lead roles in small pictures (including the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and supporting roles in the likes of the acclaimed Zodiac, but he had exhibited a degree of caution that threatened to be blown apart if he took on the role of Lazarus.
No stranger to controversy thanks to a well-documented drug addiction that took hold of him in the late Nineties and early Noughties and nearly ruined his life and career alike, Downey Jr was initially reluctant to expose himself to the inevitable criticism that would follow.
As he said to the Joe Rogan Experience podcast in 2020: “My mother was horrified. ‘Bobby, I’m telling ya, I have a bad feeling about this.’ I was like, ‘Yeah me too, mom.’ When Ben called and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this thing’ – you know I think Sean Penn had passed on it or something. Possibly wisely. And I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that and I’ll do that after Iron Man.’ Then I started thinking, ‘This is a terrible idea, wait a minute.’”
Yet Downey Jr was not just a company man trying to rehabilitate himself. His father, the legendary underground filmmaker Robert Downey Sr, had made a black comedy in 1969, Putney Swope, that revolved around a black employee of an advertising firm who eventually takes over the company and moulds it in his image. His youthful son had associated with some of the cast of the film while it was being made, and later recalled: “I was remembering some of the folks who were hanging out in the West Village back then. Without it being too specific, I just started this gravelly, cool, very world-weary voice, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to have a ball with this’.”
He had two reasons for taking on the part. The first, and most artistically convincing, was that he wished to satirise the pomposity and self-importance of many of his fellow actors, some of whom had contemptuously dropped him when he was regarded as box office kryptonite, only to come fawning back when his career recovered. And the second, which he confessed to an understandably surprised Rogan, was that “Then I thought, ‘Well hold on dude, get real here, where is your heart? My heart is…I get to be black for a summer in my mind, so there’s something in it for me.’”
Yet Downey Jr was also aware that, if Stiller had handled the material poorly, it would not only ruin his career, but those of everyone else involved in it. As he reflected later: “[Stiller] knew exactly what the vision for this was, he executed it, it was impossible to not have it be an offensive nightmare of a movie. And 90 per cent of my black friends were like, ‘Dude, that was great.’ I can’t disagree with [the rest], but I know where my heart lies. I think that it’s never an excuse to do something that’s out of place and out of its time, but to me it blasted the cap on [the issue]. I think having a moral psychology is job one. Sometimes, you just gotta go, ‘Yeah I effed up.’ In my defence, Tropic Thunder is about how wrong [blackface] is, so I take exception.”
However, blackface was merely one of the various sins against taste that Tropic Thunder was accused of, at the time and subsequently. Some of the film’s aspects that have been criticised include fat-shaming (in the form of Jack Black’s obese, sweaty comedian, playing a character literally called Fats), homophobia – Brandon T Jackson’s closeted rapper is attempting to sell an energy drink called Booty Shake – and anti-Semitism, with Tom Cruise’s uncredited performance as a bullying, hideous studio executive called Les Grossman described as Jewface.
All of these will, indeed, offend the faint-hearted, but the film is a raucous satire aimed at adults who understand the intent. And then, unfortunately, came Simple Jack.
In retrospective, it is clear that Stiller and his co-writers had anticipated the controversy that would arise from Lazarus and the blackface aspects. But they had not seen what would ensue from the film’s portrayal of Speedman’s disastrous attempt to rehabilitate his career by appearing in a would-be Oscar-bait picture, Simple Jack.
The film’s running joke is that, by taking the role of a mentally challenged farmhand who can speak to animals, Speedman has dug himself deeper into his career’s abyss. As an understandably appalled Lazarus says, “Everybody knows you never go full retard”, before listing examples of when stars won awards, before declaring “Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.”
Tropic Thunder’s studio, Dreamworks, were sufficiently convinced of the crossover value of Simple Jack as a tool for discussion to create a spoof website for the fake film. It worked, but not in the way that they had anticipated. A coalition of disability groups objected to the film’s use of the word “retard”, and, after being duly outraged at a special screening of the picture, staged a protest at the American premiere on August 11.
Said an irritated Stiller: “We screened the movie so many times and this didn’t come up until very late… in the context of the film I think it’s really clear, they were making fun of the actors and actors who try to use serious subjects to win awards.” The rationale was clear: this is obviously a satire on self-important actors, not on race, disability or any other issue, and those who are offended have missed the point.
In fact, it’s the film’s willingness to flirt (and even go further) with various ever-more problematic hot-button issues that elevates Tropic Thunder from being an entertaining but disposable summer blockbuster into a satire of surprising courage – all the more so because this is a big-budgeted studio picture with major stars in it.
For all of Stiller and Downey Jr’s subsequent remarks, it seems quite clear that much of the humour is deliberately designed to provoke its audience. There is no actual need for the Lazarus character to spend the majority of the film in blackface. Its outrageousness therefore becomes the major selling point, rather than its purported satire on intense and over-committed method actors.
There is, of course, no way that Tropic Thunder could, or would, be made today. 2008 might not seem so very long ago, but changing sensibilities in Hollywood have meant that the film would now either be so sanitised that the jokes would lose all their bite, or it would be cancelled long before production began.
There has not been a mainstream comedy this incendiary in cinemas for years. Jennifer Lawrence’s recent No Hard Feelings may have attracted some attention for an unexpected nude scene from Lawrence, but that was nothing: major studios now run away from any hint of controversy in their pictures. Just compare the safe, unthreatening humour in the recent, “edgy” Joy Ride to the deliriously un-PC jokes in the Stiller-starring There’s Something About Mary, and it is clear that the closest contemporary cinema gets to this kind of film is the Deadpool series – films that are smirkingly self-satisfied rather than genuinely provocative.
There are occasional suggestions that Cruise wants to resurrect Grossman in some form when he has finished with Mission: Impossible. It could work (Cruise has an under utilised gift for comedy) or simply be a self-indulgence retread of a character audiences have largely forgotten about. Yet, if by some fluke another Tropic Thunder film was ever greenlit, one can only wonder whether an unrepentant Stiller, Downey Jr and the rest would see if they could make something even more jaw-droppingly offensive. Fingers crossed.