"Tropic Thunder" is the funniest movie of the summer—so funny, in fact, that you start laughing before the film itself has begun. This needs explaining. Ben Stiller's movie is about a gaggle of pampered, self-important Hollywood folks who go into the jungle to shoot a big-budget Vietnam War movie (called "Tropic Thunder") and stumble into real danger when heavily armed drug smugglers take them for the real deal. But like any "real" movie, "Thunder" starts with a few trailers. The first is a frenetic ad for "Booty Sweat" energy drinks, which turns out to be the product of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who we will soon discover is one of the stars of this Southeast Asian war epic. This is followed by more priceless fake trailers of upcoming movies from "Tropic Thunder" stars. Tug Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star ("Scorcher VI") who's tried (and failed) to earn respectability by playing a retarded farm boy in "Simple Jack." The belligerent, drug-addled comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is seen in "The Fatties 2," a fart-filled sendup of every lowbrow Hollywood comedy in the past flatulent decade. And the multiple-Oscar-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is glimpsed in his upcoming forbidden-love epic as a medieval monk making eyes at Tobey Maguire. Can the movie itself live up to this inspired warm-up? No problem. This raucous, low-down commentary on Hollywood filmmaking, war movies, narcissistic actors and the thin line between makebelieve and reality is the most giddily entertaining, wickedly smart and cinematically satisfying comedy in a season overloaded with yuk-'em-ups. If there's any justice, "Thunder" (which opens Aug. 13) should be the breakthrough moment for Stiller as a director.
Stiller the director? Mention his name, and the first image that probably comes to most minds is a pathetic suitor standing in a doorway facing Cameron Diaz with a gob of semen dangling from his ear. The Farrelly brothers' gross-out classic "There's Something About Mary" (1998) catapulted Stiller into the pantheon of comic stars. He's become one of the 10 most highly paid actors in Hollywood, and arguably one of the most powerful. But the funny thing was, acting stardom was never his real dream. Stiller is now in Vancouver, starring in a sequel to his popular family film "Night at the Museum." Sitting in a hotel room drinking coffee after a long day's shoot, the 42-year-old star remembers the moment he discovered his calling—to make movies. He was 20, performing in a 1986 revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" on Broadway, when he picked up a video camera and made a little movie called "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man" with the show's star, John Mahoney. "He played the most arrogant, alcoholic a––hole, passed out in the gutter at the Plymouth Theater with a bottle in his hand. I remember showing it at a party and people laughing. It was one of those moments where I was going, 'Oh wow, this is good. I like this feeling. This is sort of what I want to do'."