The Method in Robert Downey Jr.’s madness

The Iron Man of acting delivers the world’s first DVD commentary in verbal blackface.

The Method in Robert Downey Jr.'s madness

Even when it’s your job to watch movies, occasionally you’ll miss one in the line of duty and catch up to it months later. Tropic Thunder came out when I was on summer vacation, so I didn’t have a chance to write about it at the time. I finally got around to seeing it last night on Blu-Ray. Twice. Although I didn’t intend to, I ended up watching the entire thing all over again just to hear the DVD commentary actors Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black and Ben Stiller, who also wrote and directed it.

Only then, while watching it with the commentary, did I realize that what I’d seen the first time around was the director’s cut—and fatter than the theatrical version. About every 15 minutes, often during one of the funnier scenes, Stiller would mention they’d decided to cut that bit for the theatrical release because it slowed down the story. Story shmory. Nobody went to see Tropic Thunder for the story. It was all about the gags, and the performances. The story sagged like a wet hammock in the rainforest (or was that was just the ‘director’s cut’?), but Tropic Thunder is one of the the most enjoyable guilty pleasures I’ve seen since. . . well, since Stiller’s Zoolander, which, after repeated encounters on cable TV, I’ve come to regard as a comedy classic.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to say that Robert Downey Jr. has made DVD history by delivering the first commentary track in blackface. It’s the ultimate post-modern, post-post-production in-joke. Downey plays an Australian actor named Kirk Lazarus, who has his pigmentation changed to play a black soldier in the combat picture that’s being shot in the film with the film. Lazarus doesn’t drop the bogus soul brother accent for a second. And he boasts to his fellow actors that on every picture he stays in character throughout the entire shoot and beyond—right up until the DVD commentary is finished.

And Downey himself does exactly that, talking like a-Hollywood-plantation-Negro-as- conceived-by-a-pretentious-thespian throughout the entire feature-length chat with Stiller and Black on the commentary. And it’s hysterical. It was past 1 a.m., and the movie wasn’t so good you’d want to watch it twice back-to-back, but I couldn’t turn it off. And the piece de resistance comes in the final scenes, when Lazarus finaly rips off his fake ‘fro and beard to resume his identity as the Auzzie actor. At that point in the commentary, Downey seamless morphs the accent from black to Australian. And only when the final credits roll does he sluff off that accent and talk like himself, finally saying farewell to Lazarus on the afternoon of Tropic Thunder‘s premiere—which is when Stiller, Black and Downey recorded their commentary.

If there were an Oscar for the DVD commentary performance of the year, Robert Downey Jr. would win hands down. My only complaint about the commentary is that these three actors spend so much time congratulating each other that they neglect to underline the fine work by co-star Jay Baruchel. While they’re milking the gags, this immensely likeable Canadian actor does a lot of the heavy lifting and keeps it real— anchoring that pesky story Stiller was so worried about.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.