Tropic Thunder

[Stop Button Lists] Robert Downey Jr., Nine Movies of the Megastar

Robert Downey Jr., filmography, 2008-13

I have been a Robert Downey Jr. fan since Soapdish. Looking to escape sounds of the Bulls playing the Los Angeles Lakers, my dad and I went to see Soapdish in the theater. I’d seen Downey in Weird Science and maybe Johnny Be Good, had wanted to go see Air America (but didn’t–and still haven’t seen it) and definitely knew him from the Pick-Up Artist. I watched a lot of 20th Century Fox movies and CBS/FOX Video loved playing the Pick-Up Artist preview on tapes.

After Chaplin, I waited for Downey’s movies. Heart and Souls, Short Cuts; I even saw Only You, something I’ve never forgiven myself for doing. After Only You, I fell off until One Night Stand. I’ve seen some of the interim movies since, including Home for the Holidays and Restoration. I saw Gingerbread Man, was mad at Downey’s terrible performance in U.S. Marshals, liked him in In Dreams and Wonder Boys. Then fell off until Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, even though I’ve meant to see Singing Detective.

So I’ve been a conscious Robert Downey Jr. fan since I was twelve years old. And I was thrilled when he signed on to do Iron Man. He’d just been awesome in Zodiac. It’s a shame he hasn’t stopped playing the Iron Man part, which actually seems based on his characterization of “The Pick-Up Artist” Jack Jerricho.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.
“Did anyone ever tell you that you have the face of a Botticelli and the body of a Dégas?” Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. star in IRON MAN, directed by Jon Favreau for Paramount Pictures.

For his part, Downey has suggested he doesn’t want to do a film unless he gets paid a lot of money. He also doesn’t like poor people. He’s also still a great actor, even if people are starting to find Tony Stark a little much.

Beginning in 2008, with Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, Downey has entered the least artistically successful phase of his career. Maybe ever. I haven’t seen his eighties stuff in fifteen years plus. The two films are the division point. Iron Man or Tropic Thunder. The former plays on Downey’s ability to be likable regardless of the situation (I won’t get into the drugs but until this point in his career, they were extremely important to his career) and the latter showcases his ability to turn in a fantastic, impossible performance.

Iron Man made more than three times as much money as Tropic Thunder.

Now a potential box office draw as the dramatic equivalent of Johnny Depp (throw “serious” actor Downey in a franchise, it crosses over between kids and more discerning ticket buyers), Downey tested his popularity. Sherlock Holmes was a new franchise where Jude Law had been in bigger movies than the top-billed Downey. The Soloist was Downey trying for an Oscar in a drama. Holmes did well, Soloist did not.

Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis star in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.
You can tell by the suit. Robert Downey Jr. plays straight man to Zach Galifianakis in DUE DATE, directed by Todd Phillips for Warner Bros.

So Downey stopped trying Hollywood dramas. He went with a comedy (Due Date), it flopped, he corrected the course of his career. Did he hire Tom Cruise’s original manager or something?

Thanks to Downey, Disney has made a lot of money with the Marvel movies. Marvel has made a bunch of money. Warner Bros. could be happier, but Downey’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world; Sherlock Holmes 3 is inevitable.

What’s frustrating is his acting ability. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Sure, the Marvel movies don’t ask him to stretch, but he sold the silliness of the element discovery in Iron Man 2 and he and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry in that series gives it a solid foundation the filmmakers seem entirely unconcerned with. It isn’t necessary for the box office, but Downey can’t help being really good.

Even in The Avengers, Downey was the one who sold the reality of the film (not just its contents, but its very existence) to the audience.

A scene from THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.
Tin can or not, Robert Downey Jr. cashed a check bigger than the rest of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes combined in THE AVENGERS, directed by Joss Whedon for Walt Disney Pictures.

When I first thought of this topic–Downey’s “road to super-star” films, I did the math to make sure I wouldn’t have to talk about The Judge. I also asked some friends what they thought about doing a post on this topic. I felt like I should make a list of Downey’s best films, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the nineties films. Though you should see every film listed in the first two paragraphs as soon as possible.

For lack of a better term, Downey’s the one who creates Marvel’s reality distortion field. His presence makes it seem like it should be not just good, but worthwhile.

Look at Iron Man, Downey’s got issues with father figure Jeff Bridges failing him. Or Iron Man 2, Downey’s got issues with his father’s nemesis, played by Mickey Rourke (can you imagine the eighties Hollywood stories they could’ve shared?), while one of his same-aged peers is after him. Plus, it’s Sam Rockwell as that guy. Oh, and he’s got a brewing romance with his assistant, who sort of runs his life and company. The Iron Man movies always have a strong enough dramatic cast to make a synopsis–an artfully written one–sound like a great mainstream drama. They just happen to be superhero movies. And those dramatic plots usually fail miserably amid comic book nonsense. But the movies are still good.

Robert Downey Jr. stars in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.
“You’ve been in my life so long, I can’t remember anything else.” Wait, wrong movie. Robert Downey Jr. sits with his box office golden boy in IRON MAN 3, directed by Shane Black for Walt Disney Pictures.

Why? Because Downey.

The Sherlock Holmes movies are a little different, of course, because Downey’s not playing the same kind of jerk. He’s playing a more lovable jerk; maybe the third one is still potential just because Downey’s rocking the jerk persona in public now too.

No matter how many movies Downey makes for Marvel, no matter how much money he makes for them, he’s never going to be as good as he was in Chaplin in any of them. He’s not even going to be as good as he was in Heart and Souls. Hopefully he’ll always be better than he was in U.S. Marshals, because I’m probably going to see all of those movies eventually.

Because I really do want to see a rematch between Julian and Rip; I just know, with Downey’s range these days, it’s not worth the price of a movie ticket.

Tropic Thunder (2008, Ben Stiller)

Tropic Thunder is one of those nice movies where most of the cast is phenomenal–here, while Nick Nolte and Steve Coogan are less than amazing, they’re both good. Only Ben Stiller lacks. The script’s full of good one-liners and some knowing Hollywood references. When, for the third act, there’s an attempt at honest characterization, it stumbles. Instead of amping up the absurdity, the movie strangely sidesteps it. The last couple scenes totally ignore that sidestep, going for an ending one half Soapdish, the other Austin Powers. It’s a weak move, but it’s hard to get too upset–the Austin Powers half is Tom Cruise in a fat suit and a bald cap dancing to hip hop.

Cruise’s performance, which I thought was more a cameo, says a lot about where Tropic Thunder works well. It gives the opportunity for good actors to essay crazy roles in the “real” world. There is a certain air of unreality about the movie, if only because it’s a movie made about “Access Hollywood” type reporting using “Access Hollywood” as a narrative tool. There’s a certain conflict of interest, particularly given Cruise’s presence.

Of the three leads–and calling Jack Black one of the leads is a courtesy, Black’s absolutely fantastic, but he’s not one of the leads–Black is the only one without a recognizable real life analog. Even though Robert Downey Jr. picked his character’s nationality (Australian)–a change from the original Irish–the result, a multi-Academy Award winner who does Oscar bait, results in rather obvious Russell Crowe comparisons. Stiller’s playing a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Cruise. Imagine Cruise’s career downturn but without the prestige projects and a lot of dumb, Arnold-sounding action movies. It makes Cruise’s appearance all the more amusing, but it feels–like the “Access Hollywood”–not like punches are being pulled… but they aren’t connecting.

The result is a measured success. Tropic Thunder is really funny, but never genuinely witty or intelligent. There’s a pretense it is witty and intelligent, which just makes it a little sad. Thank goodness for that Tom Cruise dance number.

As far as the acting goes… Downey is–technically–the most amazing. Until he has to play it straight, it’s just fantastic. But Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson, as the non-superstar supporting cast members in the movie’s movie, steal it in terms of actual human performances. These characters exist to remind the viewer the main characters are unbelievably loopy, which really cuts into the reality factor. Baruchel has more to do in the plot, more people to interact with (Jackson basically gets scenes–good scenes–with Downey).

In much too small roles, both Danny R. McBride and Matthew McConaughey are good.

Stiller’s direction is nearly as passive as his performance. There’s some funny references to war movies–Baruchel starts the picture in glasses in what I’m hoping is a silent Full Metal Jacket reference–but in terms of actual craft, Stiller comes up empty. The movie’s strength are in the script’s dialogue and its characters (certainly not its plot) and the actors. And Stiller seems aware of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ben Stiller; screenplay by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, based on a story by Stiller and Theroux; director of photography, John Toll; edited by Greg Hayden; music by Theodore Shapiro; production designer, Jeff Mann; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Eric McLeod and Stiller; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ben Stiller (Tugg Speedman), Jack Black (Jeff Portnoy), Robert Downey Jr. (Kirk Lazarus), Brandon T. Jackson (Alpa Chino), Jay Baruchel (Kevin Sandusky), Danny McBride (Cody), Steve Coogan (Damien Cockburn), Bill Hader (Rob Slolom), Nick Nolte (Four Leaf Tayback), Brandon Soo Hoo (Tran), Reggie Lee (Byong) with Matthew McConaughey (Rick Peck) and Tom Cruise (Les Grossman).


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