News

Ten Years On, Tropic Thunder's Still a Brutal Kick In Hollywood's A--

Five reasons Ben Stiller's controversial, career-reviving satire still sticks in the memory and in the industry's craw.

by | August 13, 2018 | Comments

(Photo by © DreamWorks)

In 2008, Tropic Thunder hit screens like a dynamo, shocking audiences with its stunt casting and blunt satire and racking up $110.5 million in domestic box office receipts. Ten years on, it still stands out as an audacious and controversial piece of American comedy – and we’re digging into why.

Written, directed, and produced by Ben Stiller, the movie sits Certified Fresh at 82% on the Tomatometer and earned Robert Downey Jr. a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, a white Australian method actor portraying a black character, Staff Sergeant Lincoln Osiris, in a fake movie. It was also blessed by Tom Cruise’s brilliant cameo as ostentatious douchebag Hollywood agent, Les Grossman.

Performances are one thing, substance is another. Tropic Thunder might have been just another big studio comedy when it landed in theaters on August 13, 2008, but it had weight to it and stuck in our memories in a way that few comedies-of-the-week do. Here are some of the reasons it cut through, and holds up.


1. It Surpassed Some Of Its Most Notable Influences

Chances are, you’ve seen 1999’s Galaxy Quest, a Star Trek parody so funny, rich, and solid that some Trekkies even hold it among the canonical Star Trek movies. (Critics liked it too – it sits at 90% on the Tomatometer.) The film told the story of a band of down-and-out actors from a Star Trek-like series who are forced to play their TV roles when they’re kidnapped by a beleaguered alien race that thinks their TV reruns are real-life documentaries. Chances are, too, that you’ve herd of Three Amigos!, released 13 years earlier, which also saw a band of actors mistaken for their onscreen characters, this time South of the Border. The two films’ influence on Thunder – in which, yet again, the story of actors mistaken for their characters is used to skewer aspects of the movie-making business – is such that some online writers have dubbed them an unofficial trilogy. The trilogy’s finale, though, takes its satire to the darkest place: the very heart of the dream factory.

If Galaxy Quest captured Star Trek and its surrounding culture in a nutshell, Tropic Thunder captured Hollywood itself. Stiller’s script held a funhouse mirror to his contemporary actors, portraying its entitled prima donna actor characters with zero self-awareness about themselves, their peers, or their impact on audiences. More, Stiller held that same mirror to the Hollywood industrial complex, with the characters’ agents being varying degrees of oblivious, short-tempered, and manipulative. Despite all this, nearly every character in Tropic Thunder learns to get over themselves in a Sullivan’s Travels sort of way (yep, it even had a very Hollywood ending). While Galaxy Quest posits that even disposable entertainment has intrinsic value, Tropic Thunder argues that most folks in Hollywood, while often misguided, ultimately have the best intentions at heart.

Well, everyone but Les Grossman.


2. It Gave Tom Cruise a Much-Needed Post-Couch Big Win

The mid-2000s were rough for Tom Cruise’s image. Mission: Impossible III didn’t exactly light up the box office, Lions for Lambs bombed outright, and then there was the Oprah couch incident. It seemed like the impossible had happened: Cruise’s star was fading. That was until his explosive performance as Hollywood agent Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. Rumored to be based on Harvey Weinstein, Grossman was a hilarious, over-the-top deconstruction of the stereotypical Hollywood executive: brash, profane, arrogant, egotistical, manipulative, greedy, and grandiose. He might be a bit much to swallow – and a bit harder to watch, given what we know about the man who some say inspired him – but his meme-able dance moves go down smooth.


3. IT WAS PART OF THE “YEAR OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR.”

Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, who plays the black Sergeant Lincoln Osiris in the movie-within-the-movie, is one of Tropic Thunder’s most memorable — and infamous — elements. Already riding a big career uptick following 2005’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and 2007’s Zodiac, Downey Jr. had a truly banner year in 2008 with the releases of Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. The actor proved he could lead a blockbuster with the MCU’s first entry, but Tropic Thunder reminded people that he also had range to spare. It was an uproarious and uncomfortable satire of Hollywood whitewashing and the industry’s often problematic casting decisions – and let’s face it, one that is still relevant today.


4. IT HELPED KICK OFF THE MCCONAISSANCE

Make no mistake, we were riding the Matthew McConaughey train well before Tropic Thunder – he was a rom-com king in Failure to LaunchHow to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, and Fool’s Gold, and he gave us a decent villain in the apocalyptic Reign of Fire. But he was rarely given serious consideration for roles that were, shall we say, more challenging. He changed that perception in Tropic Thunder playing Rick Peck, a comically oblivious agent who was absolutely hellbent on getting his client a TiVo. From there, McConaughey enjoyed a string of successes including Mud, Magic Mike, and Dallas Buyers Club, and notably on TV’s True DetectivePrior to Tropic Thunder, he starred or appeared in just five Certified Fresh movies across a span of 15 years; in the 10 years since the movie’s release, he’s been in nine.


5. IT WAS WOKE AS HELL, ESPECIALLY FOR THE TIME

Another infamous element of Tropic Thunder? Ben Stiller’s action star Tugg Speedman formerly played the titular character in Simple Jack, an in-universe critical-and-financial failure centered on a young man with learning disabilities. As with the Tropic Thunder‘s treatment of blackface, the concept of Simple Jack held Hollywood’s feet to the fire, skewering the way able-bodied actors have portrayed people with disabilities to earn those awards-season accolades. Tropic Thunder also featured Brandon T. Jackson as Alpa Chino, a hyper-masculine – but closeted – rapper-turned-actor. When he accidentally comes out to his co-stars, he is met only with encouragement. We also got to see Chino with his boyfriend at the end of the film in a heartwarming moment.


The 2000s saw their share of important comedies, with Superbad, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Knocked Up digging into a number of issues on the tip of people’s tongues, but Tropic Thunder cracked the egg of Hollywood itself. For that – and for its rollicking deconstructions of entitlement, race, fame, the creative process, and self-actualization – it won’t soon be forgotten.

Tropic Thunder was released in theaters August 13, 2008

Tag Cloud

Pride Month TBS Paramount Network GLAAD LGBT Box Office supernatural unscripted Comic Book Red Carpet MSNBC Watching Series E3 Mindy Kaling Film Festival Holidays cults Biopics psycho Elton John Song of Ice and Fire Superheroes Cartoon Network discovery Lifetime BET spy thriller mutant Rocketman dc Emmys Marvel anthology Reality DC streaming service National Geographic PBS political drama zombies Pet Sematary 2016 Kids & Family elevated horror History ratings Super Bowl space El Rey disaster Drama crime thriller Anna Paquin New York Comic Con Extras Best and Worst Tumblr OWN Mudbound Awards Tour streaming TLC crossover nature Western TCA 2017 ABC Star Wars toy story Pirates ESPN Rock Schedule First Look Oscars Awards SundanceTV Universal Superheroe Comedy finale Fox News Heroines witnail Sci-Fi The Arrangement Tomatazos Sundance Adult Swim Certified Fresh Rocky ITV Brie Larson Chernobyl TIFF Polls and Games harry potter Hulu richard e. Grant Set visit Stephen King hist Premiere Dates Warner Bros. Nominations VH1 CW Seed DC Comics what to watch FX Lionsgate blaxploitation TCA Valentine's Day period drama Podcast Cannes Crackle TCM dceu Photos Christmas adventure Spring TV Ellie Kemper medical drama Spectrum Originals Ghostbusters Mystery sequel animated singing competition politics Calendar Paramount Mary Tyler Moore zombie Captain marvel Character Guide Musical E! Sundance Now Lucasfilm Teen binge Marathons VICE SXSW The CW sports Nat Geo boxoffice Quiz TV Land 007 social media 2019 Amazon Music justice league Columbia Pictures Pop Britbox NYCC Pixar Masterpiece Black Mirror Acorn TV Writers Guild of America USA Network diversity Martial Arts HBO travel Action natural history TruTV BBC Showtime TNT cops thriller psychological thriller Opinion BBC America Syfy 2015 21st Century Fox comic CNN FOX Star Trek award winner 45 Epix PaleyFest San Diego Comic-Con ABC Family romance Tarantino Disney Channel 2018 MTV Mary Poppins Returns crime GIFs anime American Society of Cinematographers AMC green book 20th Century Fox Ovation MCU IFC Winners crime drama aliens YouTube Red Grammys Esquire Fantasy Chilling Adventures of Sabrina transformers Dark Horse Comics Starz miniseries Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt festivals Logo CBS Countdown Comedy Central serial killer Infographic Sony Pictures Food Network casting police drama APB NBC teaser YouTube Premium Sneak Peek composers A&E Walt Disney Pictures Nickelodeon zero dark thirty LGBTQ Comics on TV Mary poppins 2017 Toys Shudder Year in Review robots dramedy true crime President Election FXX Bravo war strong female leads mockumentary facebook cooking GoT adaptation Vudu Interview Reality Competition Freeform SDCC docudrama spinoff RT21 Summer based on movie historical drama Spike DC Universe Musicals technology spider-man jamie lee curtis X-Men television theme song See It Skip It golden globes biography cinemax The Witch YA Netflix comiccon cats WGN TV Creative Arts Emmys Women's History Month game show Amazon Prime Trivia Disney Apple DirecTV Shondaland Video Games science fiction IFC Films USA vampires doctor who Animation Trailer talk show sitcom CBS All Access Cosplay Thanksgiving CMT Winter TV 24 frames dragons Country Fall TV DGA RT History Rom-Com Trophy Talk Horror