A little while ago, I covered the use of narration in 30 Rock and tied it back to how the series is essentially one giant meta-narration about the ins and outs of the TV industry. About how the things we (don’t) see and hear on a set can add or detract depth from the illusion presented to an audience.
And it got me wondering whether or not any other noteworthy productions fit the same bill. That’s when it hit me – the same movie that’s been stirring up controversy to this very day, nearly 15 years after its theatrical release. Tropic Thunder.
That’s right, that Tropic Thunder.
The Film is a Meta-Narration of Hollywood
First and foremost, before we even address the five different narrations heard at the beginning of the film, down to its very bones, Tropic Thunder is a meta-narration of Hollywood. So much so that to this day, audiences and critics alike are still split down the middle over it.
In spite of the pointed, razor-sharp commentary on the film industry and creative depth written into its multi-layered narrative structure, some see it as a mean-spirited kaleidoscope. And to a degree, it does spin the self-contained world of Hollywood into a circus of one-note characters and marginally functioning individuals. Yet, on the other hand, Tropic Thunder is a deceptively elegant narrative that unfolds a little more each time you watch it. A perfect example of that is one of the most controversial aspects of the movie – Robert Downey Jr.’s use of blackface.
From the outside and have not seen the film, it comes off as a poignant disregard for basic human decency. But upon actually watching the movie, it’s a genuine subject of debate addressed several times throughout the film and a call-out for Academy Award winners with larger-than-life personalities and a penchant for diving too far into roles. Roles they had no business auditioning for in the first place.
The (Uncredited) Narration of the Meta-Narration
Did I already mention that Tropic Thunder is one giant satirical narrative that blends seamlessly into the real world? Ben Stiller and Justin Theroux took their idea so far that they developed real (fake) websites for the products, movies, and actors that real-life actors were playing.
Fake trailers were made for the movie’s pre-roll sequence that featured distinctly Don LaFontaine-esque narrations – despite being uncredited to the point that no internet deep-delving can even turn up a name for the narrator. Although, given the entire premise of the Tropic Thunder, it’s as frustrating as it is fitting. At first glance, it feels like an oversight, but upon a little more research into the actual model of the film, it turns out to be yet another commentary on, well, narrative commentary.
That’s because when we talk about narration in TV and film, especially within the context of this column, we don’t often think about movie trailers or the people who voice them. As viewers, we’ve become desensitized to it – expect it whenever we’re in the theatre or looking online for the next series or movie. Narration for movie trailers has (at least until recently) become such a staple in the collective unconscious of casual movie-goers that epic voice-over greats like Don LaFontaine often go entirely unrecognized by anyone working outside the film industry.
And the fact that there’s zero narration credit to be found, despite upwards of two hours in IMDB cross-examinations, seems to be a testament to that and deliberately written into the meta-narrative. Especially given that narration was a crucial element in the success of its theatrical debut.
Narration was Key to its Theatrical Debut
Months before its release, Tropic Thunder made headlines for the subject matter of its marketing campaign alone. Activists didn’t just protest its fake websites; civil rights leaders called for a boycott of the film altogether. Meanwhile, actual products were made (and sold) to bleed more of the film’s distinct meta-narrative into the real world. The same products shock-and-awe pitched (and narrated) at the movie’s start. The same websites for movies the fake actors had starred in – the same movie trailers that feature those frustratingly nameless narrations mentioned earlier.
The fact that so many people were offended by the film’s supposed content before even seeing Tropic Thunder speaks on every level to how clever Stiller and Theroux were in their concept. In addition to putting their idea out into the world, they used narration to make it tangible.
Four Fake Narrations
Throughout Tropic Thunder’s theatrical run, most audience members wouldn’t realize it had started until halfway through the fake movie trailers. Much of that confusion can be attributed to the production value that went into legitimizing its satirical takes in the real world. We hear the narrator pitching three very different films for three very over-the-top actors. And it’s done so convincingly that, as someone who worked in the voiceover world for the last three decades, I can tell they put as much work into the three fake trailers as they would have for real ones. Stiller and Theroux even went so far as to book Tobey Maguire for a cameo.
When we hear the ad for Booty Sweat energy drink (and its accompanying narrations), it should be the first giveaway. But it’s not. Whether it comes down to the stone-faced nature of Stiller’s concept or how professionally they put it together, people could genuinely believe it was real despite being stunned at the actual content.
Even had they rolled out the three faux trailers beforehand, for example, the one for Satan’s Alley, people still would have believed it was a real movie starring Downey Jr. and Toby Maguire. That said, as far as the narrations for Stiller’s overdone Scorcher franchise and Jack Black’s Fatties: Fart 2 are concerned, they’re dead giveaways that set the tone for the meta-commentary to expect throughout the movie.
The One Real Narration
Moving on to the actual intro narration from Nick Nolte, most first-time viewers weren’t exactly sure what they saw by the time the fake trailers had finished. But steadily enough, he draws us into the story. He explains the circumstances that led to writing the book that became the movie. Nolte half-comedically explains the process of elimination that led to his *spoiler* fictitious memoir being picked up by Hollywood and tells the audience that what they’re about to see is the story of “the man who attempted to make that movie.”
The irony, however, is that the man who attempted to make that movie is a hot-tempered studio executive with a handful of scenes and a big celebrity cameo by Tom Cruise. The commentary is easy to miss if watched strictly for the slap-stick comedic side of the movie. But it’s a subtle detail of the film that emphasizes that nothing we see, outside of the messages about Hollywood, should be taken seriously.
From head to toe, every inch of Tropic Thunder acts as a multi-level commentary on every aspect of the film industry and the people in it. The movie isn’t about a fake movie – it’s about the circus world of the entertainment industry – good, bad, and ugly.
Awards, Accolades, and Fun Facts
As if we hadn’t already covered enough of Tropic Thunder for one week, here are a few honorable mentions and fun facts about the movie that might surprise you:
- The Mockumentary – A Narrative Feather in the Cap
A mockumentary called Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness was released only two weeks into Tropic Thunder’s theatrical debut and followed the film’s production within the film. The mockumentary also featured spoof narration from co-writer Justin Theroux.
- It Only Won 3 Awards
Despite receiving 57 nominations for different awards around the industry, Tropic Thunder only took home three awards. The Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Comedy, an Ohio Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor, and a BMI Film Music Award.
- Tropic Thunder Earned Robert Downey Jr. More Than 20 Best Supporting Actor Nominations
Not only did Downey Jr’s controversial role as Kirk Lazarus earn him dozens of Best Supporting actor nominations, but it also got him an Oscar nod for the same category.
- It Dominated at the Box Office
Tropic Thunder debuted as the top-grossing film for three straight weeks, even though it was predicted to flop at the box office. It eventually earned over $195 million globally before its DVD release.
- Robert Downey Jr. Did the DVD Commentary in-Character
A running joke throughout the movie is that Downey Jr.’s character, Kirk Lazarus, never breaks character under any circumstances. He even goes so far as to say outright that he’s not finished with a role until he records the DVD commentary. And sure enough, that’s precisely what he does.
Kim Handysides is an award-winning voice artist, and coach. Among her 20K+ narrations you have heard her on Discovery, Netflix, and the major networks, in iMax, the White House and the Smithsonian.