Eric Thurm is the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude
Tropic Thunder is a ridiculously underrated movie. Beyond Tom Cruise’s epic turn as a large, Flo Rida-loving agent (he’s barely in the movie, though no one wold remember that), its take on the film industry was consistently funny and provided a framework for a host of underrated performances, big, goofy explosions, and a killer cast, especially Robert Downey, Jr.’s absurd performance as intense method actor Kirk Lazarus and Matthew McConnaughey’s turn as an agent. Even the jokes about celebrity adoptions are still decent, if slightly dated. One part that hasn’t aged particularly well, though: Rapper-mogul character, Alpa Chino.
Alpa is a non-presence for most of Tropic Thunder, since the character weight falls primarily on Ben Stiller’s Tugg Speedman. The characters in the movie are intentionally broad, satirizing both general Hollywood archetypes and particular examples of those types—Jack Black’s Jeff Portnoy is, for example, poking at both drug-addicted comedians like Eddie Murphy and manic physical comedians like Chris Farley (who also happen to be drug-addicted). In this case, Alpa is especially a goof on rappers (or musicians more broadly) who try to get into acting with no real experience, playing off their persona while trying to raise their own profile. (Considering Tropic Thunder came out in 2008, Get Rich or Die Trying-era 50 Cent seems like a pretty good guess at a specific target, though he also loudly yells into a cell phone “She was in the way when I was peeing,” so, you know…)
The first thing we see in the movie is Alpa performing the only song of his we ever hear, “I Love Tha Pussy.” Doing something over and over again is frequently hilarious, so the repetition of “I Love Tha Pussy” could be funny in the same way the overuse of “’03 Bonnie & Clyde” works in Head Of State, but in this case it comes across as less clever or winking and a bit more lazy, especially since it suggests that they couldn’t be bothered to suggest that the rapper character had more than one song. That’s okay though, because “I Love Tha Pussy” accompanies the fake ad for his Booty Sweat energy drink and Bust-A-Nut bars, products he spends almost the entire movie hawking in increasingly inappropriate situations (including during the filming of a Vietnam-era movie). Alpa isnominally a rapper, performing what he thinks of as the obligations of a businessman to increase his sales without really caring about whether or not he makes good songs.
This comes out a bit in Brandon Jackson’s performance, which is either good at underplaying Alpa as a normal dude doing outlandish stuff for the money or lazy, depending on whether you’re feeling charitable. Jackson isn’t a particularly intimidating presence, which fits with the rest of the vibe of the movie—Jack Black isn’t playing a character nearly as charismatic as Chris Farley, and for better or worse Ben Stiller is no Sylvester Stallone (though imagining White Goodman as an action hero sounds pretty great). The four main characters of Tropic Thunder are all neurotic shadows of the archetypes they’re parodying, which at least aids Jackson in his big spotlight scene in the first half of the movie, when he confronts the fact that Robert Downey, Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus is doing blackface.
The joke here is mostly on Lazarus (who, along with Speedman, gets most of the character work in the movie) so Alpa just has to play the straight man and point out that blackface is racist while probing the depths of Lazarus’ commitment to the role, even when he’s parroting the theme song from The Jeffersons. This is kind of a wasted opportunity, since even though Downey is the big selling point for the movie, it makes it seem like the joke of Alpa’s character is that he’s actually articulate and good at making fun of Australians. The switch between the confident rapper surrounded by an entourage wearing matching clothing and doing the “seizure” in unison, and the Alpa spouting lines that sound like a put-upon Seth Rogen character should be saying them is only theoretically interesting since neither the writing nor Jackson’s performance do anything to suggest they acknowledge the incongruity. Is Alpa Chino a bit toothless, or is the movie? (Put another way, has anyone involved in the making of this movie met a rapper?) At the least, this part of the portrayal of Alpa helps sell the late-game twist for his character: SPOILER ALERT he’s not only gay; he’s pining for Lance Bass.
I, uh, wasn’t intentionally trying to do two gay rappers as the first installments of this column, but there you go—and it seems like, for whatever reason, 2008 was a big year for people trying to tell stories about gay rappers (“It’s complicated,” he says). But where Gangstalicious’ homosexuality is basically the whole point of his story and the crux on which “The Story of Gangstalicious, Part Two” turns, Alpa’s sexuality is barely referenced in the movie, which in 2014 feels both awkward and weirdly refreshing. First, he wistfully mentions “Lance” as the object of his affection, setting off the rest of the actors before aggressively claiming to be “all about the pussy,” though this is mostly glossed-over as a personal revelation in the requisite “main cast shares stuff about themselves in front of a campfire because they’re becoming friends” scene. This happens right before the climax of the movie, so there’s not much time spent on Alpa’s sexuality since everyone is trying to play action hero (he, like the other characters, is mostly pretty clumsy and incompetent during the fight). Once that’s over, though, we see him openly with Lance Bass on his arm at the Oscars at the end of the movie (a moment barely given two seconds).
This is a very different, probably less realistic depiction of what it would be like for Alpa to be an openly gay rapper in 2008. Jay Baruchel’s naïve actor Kevin Sandusky totally buys into the idea that he’s “10 girls deep 24/7,” but he’s also the type of person who’s supposed to believe that (and accordingly consume Booty Sweat). Knowing his sexuality might undermine the status Alpa Chino needs for his continued success (success he tries to use to hide his cowardice during the climax—he’s won six VMAs and two BET Awards!). And Sandusky’s bewilderment isn’t even the best of the responses: Lazarus says, “Everyone’s gay once in a while,” and Portnoy offers to go to down on his dick in exchange for freeing him from enforced heroin withdrawal. Alpa is right to be concerned. At the end of the movie, SPOILER ALERT we see Alpa, happy with Lance Bass, without any suggestion of the effects. We get it.
That simplicity is partially because Tropic Thunder inhabits and targets Hollywood. Certainly, it’s not easy to be a gay actor, but it’s definitely easier than having to deal with Troy Ave. The key to Tropic Thunder is that, even if its portrayal of a gay rapper leaves a bit to be desired, it targets everyone equally—at least, everyone caught up in its version of Hollywood or celebrity culture, somewhere that Alpa doesn’t quite belong. (This goes a long way toward explaining the rest of the fuzziness of his portrayal in the movie, too.) And though Tropic Thunder hits a few targets pretty hard, it can’t resist giving all of the characters happy endings, even when it makes literally no sense. Like Tugg Speedman’s Oscar win, it might be better to consider Alpa’s ending a polite fantasy.