I went back and forth on whether to include Tropic Thunder in this feature because there’s very little Tom Cruise here. But it’s such a weird turn for him that I think it’s worth looking at. There’s not a huge amount to say and this will probably be kind of short but we’ve got a Nazi movie next week so let’s not push too hard this time out.
Tropic Thunder was a giant hit at the time. Actors making a Vietnam War movie end up stuck in Vietnam and run afoul of mercenaries, unclear on whether or not they’re still making a movie. You know the movie – it’s the one where Robert Downey Jr. is in blackface because his character is playing a black character in the movie within a movie.
The thing that jumps out is that it’s not nearly as funny as I remember it being. Some of it still works, but a lot of it hinges on characters being impossibly dumb (all these seasoned actors think they’re still making a movie and everybody they encounter is an actor even though they’re in a new location with no crew). I’m fine with dumb guy comedy but you really need to lean into it. You need to go full Tim Robinson as opposed to just dumb enough to move the plot along. I laughed out loud a couple of times but not at the big obvious things that probably landed huge at the time.
It’s just not the sort of thing that ages well. It tries to be so current which means that it falls flat twelve years later. And I feel like action comedies had a big turnaround shortly after this period where somebody figured out how to make them work without the comedy stopping dead for the climax. Maybe it was MacGruber that cracked it, but this is still of the era where the comedy and action sit next to one another but never really merge.
And let’s be honest. As funny as Downey is in this movie, people are still missing the point. And with this movie getting brought up as a counterpoint every time Megyn Kelly or a woman from your high school defends blackface, the degree to which it’s funny doesn’t balance out the overall negative. I’m just tired of “Robert Downey Jr. did blackface so why is it a big deal?” But nobody back then could have anticipated our slow slide into garbage. It is gross that Downey got an Oscar nomination for this in a year when no black performers were nominated. That’s not his fault, but it’s still an industry spectacularly missing the point.
Beyond that, I hate the Simple Jack stuff. Again, Downey has a really funny monologue about Stiller’s failed foray into serious drama, but once again. people badly miss the point and we’ve still got folks who should know better throwing the slur “retard” around because they’re just quoting the movie, man. Didn’t age well. It is not something that bothered me at the time; but with some distance, it’s clear that too many of the people laughing at Simple Jack are laughing a little too hard at the wrong thing. It’s hard to evaluate edgy comedy of the past when you can see what it’s wrought. We can talk about South Park some other time.
But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for Tom Cruise talk. Cruise has a small role as studio head Les Grossman, and it was kind of a big deal. Not only does he play Grossman as unhinged as profane, he does it with a bald cap and additional body hair. I remembered Grossman as being more grotesque, but he’s still Tom Cruise handsome. He’s just bald and has hairy hands. But it’s a fun performance. We don’t get to see angry Tom Cruise screaming obscenities often enough and that part of the movie is really entertaining.
The thing is, though, the whole joke of Grossman is that he is Tom Cruise and it’s weird to see him doing this stuff. There’s nothing to it beyond that. There are performers who would have made a meal of this, and if you imagine Paul Giamatti or Jason Mantzoukas in this role, it would be absolutely glorious. They would have made Grossman’s aggression frightening instead of odd. You’d remember Les Grossman as a great character rather than remembering Tom Cruise doing weird stuff. Is it a better movie with Giamatti? Definitely. But the fact that it’s Cruise makes it memorable.
That said, I don’t like the two(!) scenes where Grossman dances because the reality of the movie breaks too much. That’s where Ben Stiller just wants you to enjoy Tom Cruise not acting like Tom Cruise even if it means that a scene is interrupted for a musical interlude despite this not being the kind of movie where that happens. And maybe this is another hindsight issue, because I think we’ve seen much better “famous people acting like idiots” roles since then that felt more natural. I mean, 30 Rock exists. Again, the dance scenes are funny because Tom Cruise is doing a weird thing, and the more you dig into that the stranger it is. Cruise is kind of a mystery – watch any interview with him and you don’t come away with any real insights except that he’s pleasant and enjoys his job. I wish I could remember where it happened, but an interviewer asked him for his favorite movie and Cruise responded that he loves all of them. I don’t think he’s as blank as he can appear, though. He’s just been the most famous person in the world for a long time and expressing an opinion is a good way to turn people against you. Taylor Swift used to do the same thing until fairly recently. But the point is, we have so little insight into what’s going on in Cruise’s head that the bizarre dance scenes really jump out. Was Stiller yelling specific directions as they went? Was Tom freestyling? These scenes aren’t good and maybe shouldn’t have made the final cut, but the more you process that Tom Cruise is doing this, the more compellingly bizarre they get.
Next time, it’s Valkyrie, a movie about which I know next to nothing. But my Game of Thrones crush is in it, so that’s something!