There’s Something About Robert Downey Jr.

Watch him play a white guy playing a black guy in Tropic Thunder.

If you go see Tropic Thunder this weekend, don’t be late. The four fake ads that open the movie are perhaps the apex of its considerable comic invention. After a sleazy pitch for an energy drink called Alpa Chino’s Booty Sweat, we’re treated, or subjected, to trailers for three abysmal-looking upcoming movies titled Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown, The Fatties: Fart 2, and Satan’s Alley (that last being a kind of medieval remake of Brokeback Mountain, in which closeted monks played by Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire furtively fondle each other’s rosaries).

These trailers are not only uproarious in their own right; they serve as nifty exposition tools for Ben Stiller (directing for the first time since the 2001 Zoolander), who can now plunge us into his deranged universe without needing to provide back stories for the four main characters. We learn that Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), purveyor of Booty Sweat, is a rapper trying to break into acting. Tugg Speedman (Stiller), aka the Scorcher, is a fading action star hoping to move into serious roles. The flatulent star of the Fatties franchise, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), is also in quest of acting cred, though his heroin habit stands in his way. And Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.) is an Australian method actor who submerges himself in his characters to a disturbing degree.

As the real movie (or is it?) opens, these four Hollywood brats find themselves in a Southeast Asian jungle, shooting a war epic under the direction of Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan), who, in turn, is subject to the whims of tyrannical studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise, oh my God, Tom Cruise—but more on that later). The project is quickly going south—four days into shooting, report the tabloids, it’s already a month behind schedule—and Grossman is threatening to shut the whole thing down. In a desperate meeting with Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the Vietnam vet whose memoir inspired the film, Cockburn agrees to try shooting “guerilla-style”: He’ll strand his actors in the jungle with hidden cameras, terrify them with faked explosions (rigged by the movie’s tech guru, Cody, played brilliantly by Danny McBride), and film them as they make their way back to civilization without cell phones, assistants, masseuses, or other perks of the trade.

In addition to the fake perils Cody has set out for them, the actors fall prey to some real ones: A local drug gang led by a teenage warlord (Brandon Soo Hoo) mistakes the Americans for DEA agents and starts hunting them through the jungle. Internecine struggle begins among the team of thespians as the credulous Speedman insists this is all part of the filmmakers’ plan while the marginally smarter Lazarus tries to lead the group to safety.

Did I mention that Downey’s character is in blackface this entire time? Well, not exactly blackface; with DeNiro-like intensity, Lazarus has undergone a surgical skin-darkening procedure to prepare himself for the plum role of an African-American soldier. The fact that his fellow cast member, Jackson’s Alpa Chino, is an actual black man in a much smaller role bothers Lazarus not at all. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, he enfolds the younger actor in a brotherly embrace while intoning a speech about race relations that begins, “Over 400 years ago …” and culminates in a solemn recitation of the lyrics from The Jeffersonstheme song. Anyone walking into Tropic Thunder looking to be offended by Downey’s minstrel turn will soon find that the movie is two steps ahead. His role is no one-note, let’s-shock-the-audience race joke—it’s a densely layered little study of American racial anxiety. In an ongoing gag, Lazarus never breaks character; even when his life is in peril, he maintains his soul-brother voice and tone of mau-mauing self-pity. Obsessed with authenticity, he’s the biggest phony there is.

Robert Downey Jr. knocking a role like this out of the park is no surprise. But who could have foreseen Tom Cruise nearly stealing the movie in a fat suit, a prosthetic nose, a skinhead wig, and an Austin Powers-style mat of chest fur? Cruise is always at his best when he’s skewering some unpleasant aspect of his own persona; thus, the crazed motivational speaker he played in Magnolia was a career high point, and the supremely crude Les Grossman is another. Maybe as the head of United Artists, Cruise really does spew vicious obscenities on the phone and engage in triumphant hip-hop dances in an underground bunker of an office. At any rate, never has a role so cannily taken advantage of Cruise’s compact, thumblike body shape—that is, his physical resemblance to a penis. As Les Grossman, he’s a literal and figurative dick, and it’s the role of a lifetime.

Slate V: Why Blackface?