In Praise of Acting: Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder
Basically all the jokes in Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder comes at the expense of Hollywood actors. They are stupid, they are vain, they are heroin junkies who will blow a man for a fix. Stiller makes particular sport of mocking a character named Kirk Lazarus, an Australian and five-time Academy Award winner who gets so deeply into his roles that for his turn as Sgt. Osiris, an African-American member of a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam War, he undergoes a controversial pigment augmentation surgery and who refuses to break character when the cameras stop rolling, at least until he records his DVD commentary.
The irony here is that Robert Downey Jr., playing Lazarus playing Osiris, is so good in the role that he eventually turns this send-up of actors and their petty bullshit into a celebration of truly great acting. The movie is far from perfect and all the characters, including Lazarus, are painfully underdeveloped. I suppose you could make the argument that Tropic Thunder's laughably thin characters are just Stiller's way of satirizing the half-wits that populate most Hollywood blockbusters, but that still doesn't make them any more interesting, and it keeps most of them from being anything more than joke machines.
But Downey Jr. is so good he overcomes the movie's limitations. As Osiris he has a way of delivering lines that are deeply offensive, hilarious funny, even intensely moving, all at once. Consider his confrontation with Tropic Thunder's real African-American Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson). Lazarus commits yet another sin of racial stereotyping, announcing his intention to cook up some greens and some ribs, then reluctantly acknowledges that he can't stop talking like Osiris and isn't entirely sure why. It's sort of sad, yet it's all the funnier because he's doing his soul searching in this ridiculous cartoon accent.
Downey Jr.'s only been nominated for an Oscar in real life once, for 1992's Chaplin. Kirk Lazarus should be number two.