Things are going wrong on the set of Tropic Thunder, a war actioner based on the memoirs of disabled Vietnam vet "Four Leaf" Tayback. The actors -- faded he-man Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller); puerile funnyman Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black); and acclaimed Australian method-actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) -- are a squabbling mess.
Director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) huddles with Four Leaf (Nick Nolte), and they hatch a plan to save the floundering film. They'll rig a remote section of the Vietnamese jungle with tiny cameras, and drop the actors in with only a map and script notes. Removed from the trappings of a plush set, it's hoped the actors will deliver the necessary emotions -- fear, panic, courage and male bonding -- with marketable verisimilitude.
To say more would ruin the comic surprise of Tropic's film-within-a-film-within-a-jungle set-up. Suffice to say, our band of play-acting brothers -- which also includes the male ingénue Kevin (Jay Baruchel) and rapper-hyphenate Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) -- get their war on.
Admittedly, poking fun at the movie business, with its self-important, deluded players, its love of box-office over creativity, and our collusion with the whole mess, is easy sport. (Tropic is also a send-up of action films, another easy target.) There have been so many films parodying the Hollywood machine that we're about ready for a meta-parody.
Tropic isn't quite that sophisticated, though there are flashes of comedy that loop from reality to joke to parody to reality. But in the hazy, lazy days of summer's end, Tropic scores where it matters most: It's just plain funny, from start to finish.
The film owes a lot to Stiller, who not only stars, but also directs, co-produced and co-wrote the story and the screenplay. (The other pens were Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen.)
That said, Stiller can grate in large on-screen doses, and he should mark this lesson from Tropic: His familiar humiliated-guy routine works best as part of an ensemble. Ditto for Jack Black's slob-in-underpants shenanigans. Kudos to both for scaling back. And what else could they have done, when mid-production, they must have realized that Downey was walking away with the movie.
Downey's character, Lazarus, has undergone plastic surgery in order to look black and snare the role of story's African-American soldier. Because Lazarus favors "character immersion," he never drops the role. Downey turns in a fantastic -- and funny -- performance, where we can see all the layers; he's playing a self-absorbed white actor doing an inspired-by-other-movies take on the stereotype of the angry black Vietnam-era soldier. (Lazarus: "I know who I am! I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as another dude!")
But Lazarus isn't a bad actor; he's just inauthentic. So even when he earnestly delivers a keepin'-it-real line like "Ain't nothin' but a thing," it rings hilariously hollow. The joke is not on Lazarus' "blackness" but on his phoniness, which, of course, is openly celebrated in the hall-of-mirrors entertainment industry. Virtually every character in Tropic has a fake front, and it pays great.
The film's other running "inside" gag riffs on the absolving power of the comeback, which the washed-up Speedman is trying to achieve. While Downey's recent streak of laudable roles should finally let the blathering about his amazing return-from-the-abyss cease, his checkered past hangs over the film and reminds us that other participants are in need of a real-life career boost by way of a juicy, off-beat performance. Yes, Ben Stiller -- you could use a bona fide hit. And, Tom Cruise, in a small, highly stylized role as a studio exec, will likely do the unthinkable: Make you shriek with laughter, and possibly forgive him for his recent on- and off-screen failures. Movie magic in action.