Ben Stiller as one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, who’s career is dwindling due to his controversial portrayal of a mentally challenged boy.

Jack Black as a drug-addled Eddie Murphy rip-off famous for his comedies where he plays every character and all the jokes rely on fart humour.

And of course the piece de la resistance; Robert Downey Jr as an Australian method actor who has recently undertaken a skin pigmentation change to play an African-American role.  Yes that is right. Robert Downey Jr is playing an actor, who is wearing blackface to play a role.

In this series of blogs we’ve talked a lot about how producing satirical works of fiction for film can be risky for production companies.  There is good reason for that.  You can’t skewer an art for or profession or country without upsetting a few people.  In cinema a few upset people equals less bums on seats equals less box office money.

Production Companies Together

With Tropic Thunder, the two production companies; Dreamworks and Red Hour Productions took on a huge gamble.  Not only do those character descriptions set off my problematic siren but Ben Stiller, Jack Black and Robert Downey Jr are not bankable stars.  They are marquee names and will draw a crowd but their names do not equal commercial success.  Now some of you may be saying “Huh, Robert Downey Jr, not bankable!?” But you are forgetting this is twelve years and 22 Marvel and two Sherlock movies ago.  He was, at the time, famously, a critically acclaimed actor who had never had a box office hit.  Of course the film we are talking about, Tropic Thunder, came out the same year as Iron Man so all this was about to change.  But when he was cast in Tropic Thunder he was definitely a potential liability for production companies.

(Credit: Dreamworks Productions)

Not only was he not bankable… He was wearing blackface!

On paper this is indefensible.  Yet as a result of this performance Robert Downey Jr was nominated for best supporting actor for his role as Lazarus in Tropic Thunder at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the SAG awards.  Unfortunately for him a little known performance known as Heath Ledger’s Joker deservedly swept the awards that season.  Any other year though, you’d give him a shot.  Early this year he reflected on the role during an interview with Joe Rogan on his podcast.  Robert said:  I get to hold up to nature the insane self-involved hypocrisy of artists and what they think they’re allowed to do on occasion, just my opinion.

Complete Hollywood Satire

Did we mention Tom Cruise is in this film?  Perhaps the closest thing to a bankable star in the whole project and he is absolutely unrecognisable.  He can be spotted in a fat suit, with a bald cap, glasses and rather hairy knuckles.  He plays the obscene and aggressive studio head.  There is also Matthew McConaughey as a feigning agent who along with Cruise’s character show that no one in Hollywood is safe from a sending up from Tropic Thunder.

Tropic Thunder opened to commercial and critical success. Making over $30 million in its opening weekend it toppled The Dark Knight and joined it as one of two films in 2008 to hold the box office number one slot for over two consecutive weekends.  

This was the biggest gamble we’ve looked at so far.  Risks were taken with regards to casting, story and characters.  Tropic Thunder goes to show that when your risks do pay off they pay off big time.

Future Satirists

Could you be one of the world’s future satirists. Team up with Bolt Video to get your production underway.

Check out more from our Important Satirical Films series: