Let’s assume that any gimlet-eyed son in the high-energy household of famous comedians Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara would have had a rare opportunity to observe creative self-absorption and celebrity neurosis at close range. Still, that accident of showbiz genetics doesn’t do credit to Ben Stiller’s unique powers of ruthless insight into the Homo thespianus, and to his talents for a hilarious conjuring of the species.
A good Stiller project, from Zoolander to Dodgeball, is likely to be about a voluble extrovert of exquisite short-guy egotism, with insecurity nipping at his shoes and fury goading him on to fine eruptions of pomposity as delightful for the audience as they are blood-pressure-raising for the blusterer. Now comes Tropic Thunder, the very best and funniest of them, about a small army of such strutting peacocks, a cast of actors off on an acting adventure on the set of a war picture in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
How up their own tushies are these paragons of overpaid Hollywood privilege? They wander into the middle of a real drug war that doesn’t conform to the rules of on-location productions — no assistants nearby with bottled water, no fake bullets — and they don’t even know it. This is Stiller’s Hellzapoppin’ Apocalypse Now — the ultimate fighting machine of comedies-about-the-making-of-movies. It’s raunchy, outspoken — and also a smart and agile dissection of art, fame, and the chutzpah of big-budget productions that just so happens to include a naked, bleach-blond Jack Black, as a drug-addled movie star, draped over the back of a water buffalo.
About that eyeball-searing image: Black plays Jeff Portnoy, a John Candy-like performer trying to show he can embody more than a flatulent fatty in the gas-passing comedy franchise that earned him his fortune. Stiller, who directed and co-wrote the script with Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, plays Tugg Speedman, an action superstar no longer so super. (His Scorcher series has begun to die hard; his big attempt to stretch his range, playing the mentally handicapped title role in Simple Jack, was a failed attempt at prestige and yet undoubtedly more watchable than I Am Sam.) And in a virtuoso turn from everyone’s favorite redeemed virtuoso, Robert Downey Jr. elegantly dispatches the mishegoss of Method acting with his double-difficulty feat of playing Kirk Lazarus, an Oscar-loaded Australian artiste who commits to the role of an African-American soldier by undergoing skin pigmentation and speaking in a Shaft-meets-Uncle Ben patois even when the camera is off. Such shtick wears thin on the real African-American in the cast, a rapper-turned-actor played by Brandon T. Jackson.
There’s not even room here to linger on Tom Cruise’s eye-catching, image-salvaging romp as a puffy, crude, bald, hairy-chested Jewish producer; Nick Nolte’s authoritative turn as the grizzled technical adviser John ”Four Leaf” Tayback, whose Vietnam memoir is herein being dramatized; the maniacal antics of Pineapple Express’ Danny McBride as an explosives expert; or the crucial Brit-twit-comes-to-La-La-Land machinations of Steve Coogan (soon to be seen in Hamlet 2) as the overmatched British director of the bedeviled, behind-schedule, over-budget movie-within-the-movie (also called Tropic Thunder). The point is that with every character, and with every believably outrageous turn of the plot (beginning with fictional promotional movie trailers preceding the actual feature — each one a perfect comedy haiku), Stiller brings real insider knowledge of — and compassion for — the big business of Hollywood make-believe to bear on a comedy that is itself a superior factory creation of make-believe.
Like a postmodern magician, Downey shows how it’s really done — without detracting from the pleasures available to those who don’t care at all how it’s done, just that the entertainment includes explosions. Even an outsider with no obsessive interest in, say, how to rig the fake blood and severed limbs of movie battle will love Downey’s mid-gore Method struggle for character motivation. And all it takes to marvel, through non-PC tears of laughter, at the wisdom delivered by Downey about how to win an Oscar for portraying a handicap is a pulse. A
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