Everybody knows Robert Downey Jr. is an immensely talented actor who throws himself into his roles. But who'd have thought starring in a Ben Stiller comedy would amount to his biggest leap yet, bigger even than playing Charlie Chaplin? And it's not that the film is a comedy – while he's better known as a serious ac-tor, Downey can do funny. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Wonder Boys, Bowfinger. Hell, he was the best thing in Back To School.
No, the giant two-footed swan dive Downey takes in Tropic Thunder is that he plays a black man. Specifically, he plays a bleached-blond Aussie actor who takes a role in a Platoonish war movie, a role that was written for a black actor, prompting Downey's uber-serious thesp (think Daniel Day-Lewis with highlights) to dye his skin and 'fro his 'do.
It's like White Chicks in reverse, and Downey himself has commented that he's well aware of the risk he's taking.
"At the end of the day, it's always about how well you commit to the character,' Downey has said. "If I didn't feel it was morally sound, or that it would be easily misinterpreted that I'm just C. Thomas Howell in [Soul Man], I would've stayed home."
Ah, Soul Man, that other classic of the race makeover subgenre.
Sure, this could be seen as just a stunt. It could be considered inappropriate and racially offensive. I think a trailer's not enough to judge by – unlike, say, seeing Rob Schneider in Asian drag in I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, one of the most offensive movie appearances Schneider has ever made (and remember, he made The Hot Chick and two Deuce Bigelow movies).
And Downey's not the only one doing a major makeover for the film. Tom Cruise has been spotted in a fat suit and bald head for his role as a studio executive.
Watching the trailer for Tropic Thunder, which marks Stiller's first film as director since Zoolander, I have to admit Downey pulls it off. Almost too well. His quoting of the theme from The Jeffersons, followed by "Just cuz it's a theme song, don't make it not true" – hilarious. And Stiller smartly has an actual black actor (Brandon T. Jackson) to give a reaction to Downey's on-screen transformation.
As for the rest of the trailer, which depicts Downey and his movie-within-a-movie co-stars Jack (ahem) Black and Stiller getting caught up in an actual war during filming of their fake war, and it's pretty hilarious, too.
The first thing I thought when I saw it was ¡Three Amigos!, the Chevy Chase/Steve Martin/Martin Short minor classic about western movie actors who are mistakenly hired to defend a real Mexican village from invaders. Then, my colleague, stage and film guru Glenn Sumi struck on a more apt comparison: Galaxy Quest. Here's hoping Tropic Thunder is half the movie that Star Trek send-up was.
Of course, with Downey the white actor playing a white actor playing a black soldier, I'm left to wonder – will his character be the first in the film to die?
Watch the trailer here.