Robert Downey Jr.

Is Tropic Thunder the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast is a TV show that needs a lot of explaining. The original Space Ghost was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 60s that came and went. In the 90s, Mike Lazzo and Williams Street used the characters and settings from Space Ghost to create a faux late-night talk show where these ridiculous characters hosted an otherwise normal interview show. That version is Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which aired for years on Cartoon Network and eventually became part of Adult Swim, the nighttime block of “adult” programming that arguably gave way to what animation on television has become for the last several decades.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with it, all of that introduction probably still doesn’t help. Space Ghost the character is a bombastic idiot, a Falstaff figure if you really want to stretch the importance of a silly double-joke cartoon from the 90s, and his crew are all villains he’s imprisoned to work on this talk show. The internal reality of the show is ridiculous, but it is complete. Some of the guests (all real celebrities or cult figures) engage with it straight and some seem to have not been briefed on the premise at all. It works because both versions are consistent. It’s not “random,” a word that dogs comedy that had the guts to be anything other than the primary form at the time, but it is unexpected. In one episode Bjork plays Space Ghost’s wife, but it’s not clear how much she is in on the joke. It doesn’t really matter, they write the show around what the guest does, which allows for it all to spiral out.

I mention all of this because I was thinking of these several lenses you need to view that show through to even start to like it when I watched Tropic Thunder recently. I certainly think Ben Stiller’s war movie parody is more approachable than Space Ghost Coast to Coast, but the quality of both pieces of media is almost secondary. First, you have to buy in to the premise. You have to be willing to say “okay, it’s a talk show in space with cartoons, but everyone pretends they’re real” or “it’s a fake movie about a fake movie that’s mocking real movies that sometimes were also premised on real things that were misunderstood by real people.” The war in Vietnam was already complicated, that’s the premise that the original media about it always took, anyway, so abstracting it three more times is a hard place to start.

Tropic Thunder is about the filming of a movie called Tropic Thunder, where a cast of actor stereotypes goes to the jungle to film a serious war movie. Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and others play as types that you’ll recognize even if the exact source material isn’t always all that important. We see Jack Black’s character’s success in The Fatties: Fart 2 and you know what, you get it. Ben Stiller’s character runs towards the camera and is shot in the back in slow motion several times as he extends his arms and yes, that’s Platoon. It’s all Apocalypse Now. I don’t think we need to run down where everything is “from” to appreciate this. It’s a broad parody but also has specific jokes. That part all lands and I am not going to spend any more time explaining why the funny movie is funny.

Roger Ebert said Tropic Thunder is “the kind of summer comedy that rolls in, makes a lot of people laugh and rolls on to video.” Obvious the “video” reference there dates this a little bit, but it’s as relevant a commentary overall today as it was in 2008. Comedy can feel disposable as it often requires you to understand cultural subtext that changes over time. Shakespeare feels inaccessible at times because the jokes are about a society that’s very different than our own. People call some comedy “timeless” but at the very least, the meaning changes even if it doesn’t diminish. Things that are funny will remain funny, but if you watch a comedy from more than fifty years ago today, you will hear at least one reference that you have no chance of understanding. There are so many of these examples in old Hollywood, where an aside from Cary Grant about a specific cigarette ad or a bon mot about a political figure of the time just sails over the viewer’s head. It’s just how this stuff works.

Tropic Thunder bridges enough gaps that it’s not exactly like that, but a lot of it is definitely “of the moment.” It’s still very funny over a decade later, and it’s especially crazy that this seemed like the peak of Robert Downey Jr. but absolutely was not. He was nominated for an Oscar for this, which really seems wild now, and was just a few months into his forever-job as Iron Man. That seemed big then, of course, but who could have possibly predicted that it would essentially alter popular film entirely from the ground up. I think arguments about that being good or bad are something else entirely, but imagine how much bigger a deal all this is now than in 2008.

Robert Downey Jr. plays his role in blackface as a character who is so oblivious he doesn’t see why that would be offensive. IndieWire wrote what appears to be a summary of a podcast appearance here where Downey said recently that he doesn’t regret the choice. Ben Stiller’s character in the film recently made an Oscar-bait film called Simple Jack which involves all of the characters repeatedly using a slur to discuss his character’s condition. The sum of these two parts, and a lot of other details, really, should add up to a movie that’s impossible to watch even a few years later, but that’s not the case. Ben Stiller said at the time that none of it needed defending because it’s all in service of mocking an industry that does this stuff all the time. Your views on that defense are your own, but I think it mostly holds up. You don’t have a movie here if you cut back on the envelope pushing, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like it was all too much.

I didn’t know how I’d feel about revisiting this one, but I expected it to age poorly and it mostly hasn’t. The movie industry is still self-important and all of the “heightened” fake films still honestly feel like things you could see happen today. It’s not timeless comedy, but it’s at least comedy that sticks around. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on how little the industry and war films have changed, but even so, all the more credit to the film for knowing not just how it was in 2008 but how it would remain.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The one bit of Tropic Thunder that has changed meaning in the last decade is the central slimy, evil executive character. It’s supposedly a parody of Scott Rudin, who at the time most of the audience may not have recognized. A few months ago his life exploded when several prominent stars came out with stories of his abusive behavior. The parody is still funny, but it’s a different kind of funny now. Things like that make this feel like a movie you can keep coming back to, which I think I can’t necessarily say of Weathering With You.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but can a comedy be the best movie? My favorite comedy is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but even that requires so much cultural understanding that it feels like a tough sell as a universal best movie. This will stay Persona for now, but then again, there are different situations for a war movie parody and a complex, terrifying look at identity and the soul. You might want Tropic Thunder most nights.

You can watch Tropic Thunder on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.