This contains massive and complete spoilers for Tropic Thunder.
Dave Chen at Slashfilm has written an interesting essay about white cultural appropriation as a thematic element in Tropic Thunder. I think that Dave (who, for the record, is neither white nor appropriate) has some good thoughts, but perhaps doesn’t take them far enough. The film certainly is about cultural appropriation, and the most obvious examples of it certainly are the white folks doing shucks and jives – Robert Downey Jr in medical blackface as Kirk Lazarus, Tom Cruise (in what Manohla Dargis has called Jewface) doing his blackest dance moves for an eternity at the end of the film as megamogul Les Grossman – but there are other appopriations happening. The Cambodian drug gang not only has fallen in love with the terrible American entertainment of Simple Jack, they dress up in white face to celebrate it. And then there’s Brandon T Jackson as Alpa Chino, ostensibly the voice of black reason confronting Lazarus’s excesses. Except that Chino himself is doing just as much of a shuck and jive, hiding his homosexuality behind a veneer of supercapitalist gangsta toughness.
In fact, it seems to me that the main thematic element of Tropic Thunder boils down to identity – personal, racial, geographical. This becomes supremely obvious by the finale, as Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) and Kirk Lazarus have massive, modestly unfunny identity crises together, but it’s strung throughout the entire movie. There’s the very premise of these actors pretending to be real guys in a movie and then continuing to pretend to be soldiers once the movie breaks down, the double blackface show, the meta joke of Tom Cruise in Jew drag doing white people dancing to black music, Jack Black’s character making his fame in a series of roles where he’s covered in latex, and Nick Nolte’s Vietnam vet turning out to have both hands and never having set foot in the Shit. In fact, the two most heroic characters in the film – Jay Baruchel as the green actor Sanduskey and Matthew McConaughey as Peck, the agent who learns he has a soul and finds his true self – are the two characters most in their own identities, not playing other people. It’s only Baruchel’s Sephardic ancestry that stops the movie from taking on weird racial connotations by having two superwhite people be the most genuine, most heroic characters.
The film breaks down identity at every step of the way, even in location. Before the actors get lost in the jungle and wander out of Vietnam (only Sanduskey, who isn’t trapped behind layers of falseness, can figure out the actual identity of the country in which they end up), that nation’s identity is softened by the looming promise (and recurring gag) of a TiVo and digital satellite TV and by easy cell phone access. In fact, when Tugg Speedman gets on the phone with Peck in Los Angeles it’s day in both Vietnam and California, despite the two places being 14 hours apart. Vietnam may as well be Los Angeles (this is reinforced when Peck shows up in Vietnam after traveling for what can only be about six hours. It’s like a drive up the coast).
Cultural appropriation fits in because it’s the process of claiming another’s identity. There’s an argument to be made that cultural appropriation is inevitable in a globalized world, and it’s a way of bringing people together. I don’t think Tropic Thunder makes that case, though. Some critics have seen the way that the drug lords embrace Simple Jack (a role we’re made to see may be actually closer to the real Tugg Speedman than any other) to be showing that the character touches people. The truth is that it’s only a joke on the drug lords – they’re tough killers but just as sentimental as your grandmother (a dichotomy anybody familiar with Asian cinema will find familiar). Their appropriation of that character isn’t cross-cultural understanding, and it in fact only exacerbates the crumbling of Speedman’s own identity, a process that started when he became an actor but really got underway when he killed that panda, destroying his own ego in a Tibetan Book of the Dead kind of way. In a spiritual film Speedman could have been open to a spiritual rebirth here, but instead he wins an Oscar, an acheivement previously presented as a shallow acceptance by Hollywood of your false identity as an actor. The final irony is that he gets it for being himself (or playing himself – I’m not really clear on whether the Tropic Thunder at the Oscars is a Hearts of Darkness style documentary about making the movie or a Badasssss! style movie about the making of a movie).
Some critics have accused the movie of being mean; to me that’s not an accusation so much as a selling point. This is actually a comedy with a point of view, with something to say. In fact, I think that the movie gets a little soft at the end – while the statement is that it’s the phoniest among us who succeed the most, the movie shies away from really making a statement in the other direction. Sanduskey and Peck actually end up pretty happy, while I would have rather seen the film follow through on its own thoughts and punish them for being real people. But you can’t send audiences out of a theater feeling bad about what happened to characters in a comedy, so in the end Tropic Thunder has to appropriate the identity of a happy ending.