As he showed in his short-lived comedy-sketch TV series, Ben Stiller has a gift for crafting show-biz lampoons that explode the boundaries between burlesque and satire, low and high culture, clowning and parody. One of the funniest things ever put on television was the skit he called "Woody Allen's Bride of Frankenstein," a take-off on Husbands and Wives with a cast of characters that included Frankenstein's monster and the Mummy. It slashed through Allen's psychodrama with a simple, brilliant stroke: Allen's characters often acted monstrously; in Stiller's parody, they were monsters.

The same iconoclastic brio that can make a sketch show sizzle doesn't always sustain a feature film, and Stiller's Tropic Thunder (he directed, co-wrote and co-produced it) is a prime example. It opens with an avalanche of freestyle riffs on American action and comedy franchises, segues into a sarcastic blitzkrieg against the emotional and physical excesses of Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and ends up a barbed tribute to the fraternity of actors. The movie expands, then grows smaller. It never ceases to win big laughs, but it's like an accordion that keeps blasting as it shrinks to the size of a concertina.


Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a passe action hero who tries to revive his career with a rescue-mission war epic. Since he flopped at his last Oscar-baiting part - a mentally challenged character named, like his film, Simple Jack - he's desperate to succeed at Tropic Thunder. So he fills his cast with marquee players. Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Australian star and critics' favorite, brags that he never breaks character until he's done a commentary track for the DVD. Drug-crazed comedy superstar Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) has made millions from playing multiple flatulent roles in grotesque comedies about a family of fatties resembling Eddie Murphy's Klumps. Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) is a one-man conglomerate who creates clothing lines and specialized items like his "Booty Sweat" energy drink. Chino wants to be the most authentic 'Nam-era brother in the movie - a vain ambition, since Downey's Lazarus has undergone a pigmentation process in order to play a black sergeant. And no one gets more real than Lazarus.

This kind of crazy farce thrives on danger and uncertainty. Seeing Tinseltown self-indulgence transported to Vietnam is initially a blast, on and off the set. It's hard to know who's more out-of-control: Tugg and Kirk, who try to out-emote each other, or Cody (Danny McBride), the explosions expert who adopts his own scorched-earth policy.


When the production goes a month behind schedule in its first week, studio boss Les Grossman (an amazingly funny Tom Cruise), communicating via video phone call, tears a brand-new orifice for the struggling Limey director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Cockburn, desperate for advice, takes a tip from Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), the grizzled vet who wrote the movie's source book. Cockburn dumps his five leads into the jungle (they include one nonstar: Jay Baruchel as Kevin Sandusky) and says he'll the shoot the film with hidden cameras. When Cockburn kicks off his new plan of guerrilla filmmaking, he places his troupe right onto the path of real guerrillas - members of a vicious drug clan with a base deep inside the Golden Triangle.

Self-absorbed thespians put in extreme jeopardy produce genuine potential for a comedy of terrors. For a few split seconds, when everything whirls out of control, you experience the rare exhilaration of not knowing where the action will be heading in a Hollywood genre film. The comedy, though, contracts too soon. It centers exclusively on the delusions of actors and the incongruous spread of American mass entertainment. Stiller and his collaborators do color in some cunning turnarounds. At one point, Tugg appears headed for a fate similar to Tony in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, who was destined to read Dickens aloud to a loony hermit in the jungle. Yet too many of their choices, especially one involving gruff, hard-bitten Four Leaf, defang the action.

The movie's strength lies in its affection for all kinds of performers. Inside and out, Tropic Thunder resembles an acting-rehabilitation camp. Nolte gets to demonstrate that he has total control of his stewed machismo; for a while he appears primed to steal the picture. Cruise displays his knack for getting under the skin of egomaniacs with Les Grossman, who dances like a grotesque bobble toy to the rhythm of his own meanness and power. Matthew McConaughey may be the only actor in Hollywood to show his most appealing and vulnerable sides playing an agent: His loyalty to Tugg is almost touching. And as an Aussie actor striving to be a black man, Downey expertly parodies both an actor's self-absorption and an actor's notion of blackness: He's uproariously guttural and bulletproof. It's Downey, as Lazarus, who offers the riotous, controversial analysis of why Tugg failed to win prizes as Simple Jack, unlike Hoffman's Rain Man or Hanks' Forrest Gump or Peter Sellers' Chance in Being There.

Even if you agree with the filmmakers (as I do) that Downey's target is the closed, obsessive world of actors, protests against his satirical use of a scornful word for retardation have an aesthetic point. If actors like Kirk Lazarus or Tugg Speedman ever had to confront a mentally challenged person or a true wartime enemy, Tropic Thunder would be a riskier and more resonant comedy. Within his showbiz-humor limits, though, Stiller proves to be a gutsy writer-director and performer. Tugg's desperate commitment to his part is one of the few things in the film that gets funnier as it goes along. Stiller may be erratic as a director (his last film was Zoolander, seven years ago), but he's also game.

He brings off at least one huge shocker of a laugh through killer timing. And when he frames a shot of a drug clan armed to the teeth as a feral 12-year-old (the amazing Brandon Soo Hoo) leads them into attack, Stiller displays a talent for goofy hyperbolic imagery reminiscent of vintage Mad magazines. At its best, Tropic Thunder wrings divine madness from wretched excess.


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Tropic Thunder


Paramount) Starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey Jr., Nick Nolte, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise, Danny McBride. Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content and drug material. Time 107 minutes.