Movies about making movies are almost never funny, which makes Tropic Thunder remarkable. From the opening fake trailers for fake movies starring the fake actors played by Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey Jr. to the closing credits that feature one of Hollywood's biggest names proving definitively that white people cannot dance, Tropic Thunder rarely lets a joke fall flat as it delivers adequately broad satirical jabs at A-list actors' egos and the pomposity of trying to re-create war on the big screen. This is not to say Tropic Thunder is destined to become a comedy classic but, along with Pineapple Express and Hamlet 2, it's easily destined to become one of the best reasons to laugh at the theater this year.
Tropic Thunder is also the name of a Vietnam War memoir by Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a grizzled vet with dreams of seeing his experiences brought to life by rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan). Problem is, Cockburn can't control his cast: Jeff Portnoy (Black), a heroin-addicted comedian famous for his fat-suit movies; Tugg Speedman (Stiller), the fading action star who hasn't realized he can't act; and Kirk Lazarus (Downey Jr.), the five-time Oscar winner so committed to method acting that he undergoes pigmentation surgery to transform himself from a white Australian into an African-American. In order to rein in the production, Cockburn and Tayback devise a plan to helicopter-drop the divas, along with rapper-turned-actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and newcomer Kevin Sandusky (relative newcomer Jay Baruchel) into Burma to shoot the movie in the field without assistants, craft services, or TiVo. Once there, the five actors find themselves cut off from the modern world and in a world of shit as real-world opium smugglers discover their presence and quickly capture Speedman. The rest of the "squad" try to return to the helicopter drop point to escape, but inadvertently find themselves near the camp where Speedman is held and decide they must attempt a big-budget-movie-grade rescue despite only being armed with blanks and fake grenades. Reality, in the end, turns out to be not that different than fiction.
The movie's fun comes from co-writer/director Stiller's ability to poke fun at the crassness of big-studio moviemaking, obnoxious celebrity, and, more than a few times, the actors actually starring in Tropic Thunder. For example, Speedman is a parody of Tom Cruise (who appears unrecognizably as a hip-hop-obsessed, foul-mouthed studio exec), and Portnoy's heroin addiction and dialogue sound eerily like Downey's much-chronicled problems. That Lazarus is a parody of Russell Crowe is the proverbial cherry on top.