[There's a Spoiler in here, movie fans.]
I have to stand up for Tropic Thunder.
On January 7, Scott Mendelson posted a brief piece called "Best Moment in Gay-Friendly Cinema? Not in Milk..." in which he said how he liked how one character in TT talks about how he's gay, and no one in the scene seems to have a problem with it. It's not a teary confession, and the guy is anything but a stereotypical gay man. He's just another guy.
I completely agree with Mr Mendelson. Good going, Scott.
A lot of people responded about how they didn't like the movie, or more accurately, they didn't like the idea of the movie, since like a lot of civilian critics, they judge movies without seeing them. This is my response to the Thunder haters, particularly for those of you who haven't seen it, and won't because Downey is playing an actor playing a black man, or because there's a gay guy who, unforgivably, blends in (this was one of the comments someone gave. Yes, really.). There's also the people who refuse to watch Ben Stiller movies. That's their loss.
I hate to deconstruct a comedy-it seems to be an insult to the genre- but an overriding theme of TT is that it is peopled with men dealing with their identity. Put into the setting of a Hollywood production gone horribly wrong, the protagonists are all actors, and acting is a career entirely built around shifting identities, created identity, recreated identities, hidden identities, and denied identities.
We have Stiller's character, an action star wanting to be seen as a serious actor (re-created) while also going through an identity crisis trying to figure out who he really is; Jack Black's character is trying to conceal his heroin addiction from his co-stars(hidden); Downey's character is an actor so enmeshed in creating perfectly constructed characters that he literally gives up his identity for the sake of art (denied).
Beyond this, we get to see the characters' previous roles shown in false trailers at the beginning of the movie, one in which Downey plays a gay monk in the middle ages (hidden, or rather, cloistered), and Black playing an entire family a la Eddie Murphy's Krumps (shifting).
Nick Nolte's character has a huge secret (hidden) and Steve Coogan's fumbling director character spends his time in the movie trying to assert his identity, and fails astoundingly. Even the infamous "full-retard" scene is a discussion on the perils of putting a role to far ahead of your identity.
The movie is a meta-movie that is concealed in a guy comedy[Look at what you've reduced me to! I'm talking about "meta-"}, and by doing that the identity issue doubles upon itself, covering almost every corner of the movie. It's a movie about movies, a movie set in VietNam about our perception of VeitNam and VietNam movies. The movie starts on a film set in which a million dollar explosion effect goes wrong, and yet since we get to see it go wrong down to every last fireball, what is disastous for the characters is a reward for us.
Then we get into the meta-performances. Downey is playing a type of actor much like the real-life Downey (obsessive, chameleonlike), while dealing with Black's character who is going through problems that Downey is famous for having (heroin addiction).
We start the movie with a preview that lampoons the current vogue of fat suit comedy, and later Tom Cruise shows up in a fat suit, and we realize how fun fat suits can be. Cruise, too, is trying to re-shape his identity. Not his character, but the actor playing the character, and he succeeds mightily.
Of course, the great example of this meta-comedy is Downey's strange, histerical, and brilliant performance as a die hard method white actor who goes a bit too far to play a black soldier.
[Sidebar- I just realized "Black plays Junkie, Junkie plays Black."].
This is the controversy that's holding a lot of you back from seeing it. If you're the type of person who loves being offended then continue not seeing this movie and soak in your own tears about this horrible world that would allow something like this to happen. Everyone else, see it. Does anyone really think that Stiller, Downey and company are so stupid and cruel to even go near a black face joke if they didn't know how to pull it off.
And pull it off they do, expertly navigating one of the most difficult courses in comedy or any public discourse--that of race.
One of the key people supporting this immensely complex comedic achievement is the character of Alpa Chino (Brandon T Black) who as an honest to goodness african-american is a foil to Downey's faux-black man. A large part of his role is to constantly remind the audience that Downey is in fact white (a fact easy to forget while watching him work), and then to say that what he's doing is wrong both politically and artistically.
And, oh yeah, Chino is also gay. Chino's day job is hip hop star, and he feels compelled to hide his sexuality behind sexist, booty shaking songs (and marketing schemes). He hides his identity in his day job. In the realm of other actors, his sexuality would not be a problem, and the actors he confide in are initially surprised, but ultimately it doesn't matter to them.
His gay identity is hidden not out of shame- and there's no shame in his performance- but for professional reasons. A common occurance in the entertainment industry where hetero- markets are so much larger than homo-markets. It's a practice that goes back at least as far as singer/actor/composer/dreamboat Ivor Novello.
The movie chooses not to comment on it, instead using it as an added dimension to his character, and to spoof the war movie trope of "the girl I left behind." By gaying up that cliche, "the girl" story is interesting again. It is yet another facet to this intensely intricate hall of mirrors that is Tropic Thunder.
It's the funniest war movie I've ever seen, one of the more exciting comedies, and a Hollywood satire like none before. Ben Stiller directed, and it may be the first time he has achieved the promise that he showed 16 years ago with the Ben Stiller Show. Here's hoping it's not his last.