- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Showbiz types are endlessly fascinated with themselves. (Not necessarily a bad thing: Who understands the entertainment industry’s foibles better than Hollywood?)

Does the rest of the country share Tinseltown’s obsession with itself?

Box-office receipts for “Tropic Thunder,” a Hollywood satire directed by Ben Stiller (helming his first feature since “Zoolander”) should provide a good test.

“Thunder” chronicles the making of a big-budget Vietnam War flick starring a group of archetypal actors. Mr. Stiller plays Tugg Speedman, a fading action star looking to rejuvenate his career. Robert Downey Jr. plays Aussie Oscar bait Kirk Lazarus, a method actor whose skin has been dyed black so he can authentically portray the company’s sergeant.

Jack Black plays Jeff Portnoy, the heroin-addicted hack comedian and star of “The Fatties,” an Eddie Murphy-like comedy in which Portnoy dons a series of fat suits to portray an entire family. Jay Baruchel plays neophyte actor Kevin Sandusky, and Brandon T. Jackson stars as rapper-soft drink pitchman Alpa Chino.

The five are thrown into the Vietnamese jungle on the advice of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), author of the Vietnam memoir “Tropic Thunder,” after the men antagonize the film’s director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Desperate to get some authentic material out of his self-absorbed stars and scared to death of facing the wrath of studio head Les Grossman (Tom Cruise), Cockburn takes Tayback’s advice and drops his stars in the middle of the jungle with the intention of filming them guerrilla-style. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan.

Everyone in Hollywood takes abuse - from pompous actors to their enabling agents - but Mr. Cruise’s portrayal of a maniacal executive is particularly brutal; never before has a raging sociopath concerned with making money and debasing his sycophantic underlings been funnier.

The audience’s reaction to Mr. Cruise will be interesting: This is easily his most memorable performance since “Magnolia” and probably his most repellent. It’s a good showcase for his talents and might be the kick-start Mr. Cruise needs to get his career back on track.

Ironically, Mr. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman is essentially a version of the real-life Tom Cruise, a fading action star whose bid for dramatic credibility hits a speed bump. (The controversy surrounding Speedman’s portrayal of a retarded farmhand is kind of ridiculous; it’s obvious that Mr. Stiller is making fun of actors who play the mentally challenged in a transparent attempt to win awards and not panning the mentally challenged themselves.)

Another bright spot is supporting actor Danny R. McBride. For the second week in a row, Mr. McBride (“Pineapple Express”) shows up in multiplexes as a chuckle-inducing sidekick.

Mr. Downey has bookended the summer quite nicely, kicking off the season with “Iron Man” and wrapping it up with “Tropic Thunder.” His Kirk Lazarus is insanely devoted to his part, adopting an urban accent and a fondness for “The Jeffersons.” Lazarus’ interactions with rapper-actor Chino are priceless, pushing the envelope without devolving into racism.

It’s not surprising that certain elements have found the movie offensive; it’s among the least politically correct films of the year. This is a smart satire, one that takes a sharp stick to Hollywood’s excesses and uglier traits. Those who can’t handle a little fun might want to avoid “Tropic Thunder” altogether.

★★★

TITLE: “Tropic Thunder”

CREDITS: Directed by Ben Stiller, written by Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen

RATING: Rated R (Pervasive language, including sexual references; violent content; and drug material)

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

WEB SITE: http:/www.tropicthunder.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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