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'Tropic Thunder' pushes envelope and then some

  • Story Highlights
  • "Tropic Thunder" pushes boundaries at every opportunity
  • Film has taken knocks from groups for the developmentally disabled
  • "Thunder" casts Robert Downey Jr. as Method actor playing black man
  • Downey, other cast members don't believe character is offensive
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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- There's no question "Tropic Thunder" takes chances.

Tropic Thunder

Ben Stiller, left, and Robert Downey Jr. are among the stars of "Tropic Thunder," a Hollywood satire.

Tom Cruise almost unrecognizable as a foulmouthed, foul-mannered movie executive? Check. Mockery of action heroes, Method actors and gross-out comedians? Check. Challenging stereotypes at every opportunity? Absolutely.

But casting Robert Downey Jr. as a black man? Well, that might be a bit much.

Or maybe not.

In "Tropic Thunder," a comedy about self-absorbed Hollywood types making a "Platoon"-style war movie, Downey plays Australian actor Kirk Lazarus, a multiple Oscar-winning performer who gets so involved in his roles that he forgets to come out of them. He's a man constantly looking for ways to transform himself for his art.

So, cast as a black man in the war movie, Lazarus decides to dye his skin surgically.

Downey -- no slouch as an actor himself -- has often been seen as one who immerses himself fully in his roles. That kind of dedication prevented the character from coming off as offensive, said Ben Stiller, who directed, co-wrote and stars in "Tropic Thunder."

"I give all the credit to Robert," Stiller told CNN. "I felt he really was so committed to that character, the guy that was playing that guy, that as an audience you bought his sincerity. Very few people, I think, could pull that off."

Brandon Jackson, who plays hip-hop star turned actor Alpa Chino (say it fast), agreed.

"Robert was black the whole time. My mom came on the set and she thought it was Don Cheadle," he told CNN. "I'm serious. That's how black he was." Video Watch Jackson talk about working with Downey »

The movie, which also stars Stiller as struggling action star Tugg Speedman and Jack Black as gross-out king Jeff Portnoy, features some testy altercations between Downey's Lazarus and Jackson's Chino. Lazarus gets so involved in his role that even when it's clear filming has wrapped for the day, he sticks with it -- which irritates Chino to no end.

"To me the most important thing was Alpa Chino has to give him a beat down and tell him that what he's doing is crazy the whole time," Downey said. "Otherwise it's just demeaning to Brandon's character. And if it's demeaning to an actual black man in the movie ... I would have run for the hills."

Jackson said he would have challenged the movie if the material was offensive. But, he said, "Tropic Thunder" is a long way from the days when white performers would don blackface as a way of exploiting black stereotypes. Since then, he said, the playing field has leveled: The Wayans brothers played "White Chicks" in the film of the same name, and Eddie Murphy has played several ethnicities in his films, including Jewish and Chinese characters.

"If we're all gonna play ball, let's all play ball," Jackson said. "I believe in fairness. If we can punch you, punch back. And funny is funny." iReport.com: Will you see 'Tropic Thunder'?

Stiller, of course, is no stranger to testing comedy limits. The actor, writer and director, known for films such as "Meet the Parents" and "Zoolander," has performed or created roles that strike a delicate balance between sympathetic and distasteful -- and sometimes fall too hard on one side of the line.

He co-wrote "Tropic Thunder" based on an idea he had in 1987, when many of his friends were making war movies, he recalls in the film's production notes. While Stiller was making "Empire of the Sun," his colleagues were in boot camps training for their military roles -- and would emerge talking about the boot camp as if they'd become part of a real military unit.

"This sort of self-important, self-involved thing seemed funny to me," he said in the notes. "I just couldn't figure a way to make that into a movie."

Not immediately, anyway. But after several years, Stiller and his colleagues worked out a story that not only mocked actors, but filmmaking in general. In "Thunder," after the studio threatens to shut down the big-budget production, the frustrated director (played by Steve Coogan) refuses to stop, and takes his cast deep into a Southeast Asia jungle to shoot "guerrilla style." There they encounter danger in the form of drug lords.

"Tropic Thunder," which already has received praise from Newsweek's David Ansen and The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt, has also earned its share of knocks. The most serious have come from advocacy groups for the disabled, which are planning to picket Monday's Los Angeles premiere.

In the film, Speedman has made a bid for an Oscar by playing "Simple Jack," a developmentally disabled character. Other characters in "Tropic Thunder" dismiss Speedman's attempt to play what they refer to as a "retard." Representatives of the Special Olympics, the Arc of the United States, the National Down Syndrome Congress, the American Association of People with Disabilities and other groups met with studio executives last week to discuss the film, but DreamWorks did not make any changes.

"We are asking people not to go to the movie and hope to bring a consciousness to people about using derogatory words about this population," said Peter Wheeler, a spokesman for the Special Olympics, according to Reuters.

In a statement Sunday, Chip Sullivan, a DreamWorks spokesman, said the movie was "an R-rated comedy that satirizes Hollywood and its excesses and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the-top characters in ridiculous situations."

In the statement, Sullivan added that the film was not meant to disparage or harm people with disabilities and that DreamWorks expected to work closely with disability groups in the future.

In junket interviews for the film, Stiller said that screening audiences definitely found "Tropic Thunder" funny. "You go out there and put your best foot forward in terms of what you think you're doing, of what you think is the right idea," he said. "If people are accepting it the way that you intended, and you feel that from a general audience ... then stand behind it."

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Downey trusts that after years of making themselves known as actors who can skillfully walk that fine line between funny and offensive, audiences will accept the film's satire -- his role in particular.

"I just hope at this point, with whatever little we've done to brand ourselves as entertainers, that you give us a little slack," he said.

CNN entertainment correspondent Kareen Wynter contributed to this report.

All About Ben StillerRobert Downey Jr.Hollywood

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