Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a movie star, but he is worried that his fame may be on the wane when his last film, Simple Jack where he went for awards glory by playing a mentally challenged character, flopped spectacularly. Now he feels that the way to climb back to the top of the tree where he belongs is to headline in a war movie which is based on the Vietnam memoirs of Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), a veteran who lost his hands in a daring rescue mission. However, his plans may be going awry when the location filming in Vietnam is fraught with mishap...
There's a lot of the getting the first punch in about Tropic Thunder, a mega-budgeted, star-filled comedy reminiscent of similar endeavours of the sixties when Hollywood was throwing money at everything in the hope something would click with the public. It's as if director and co-writer Stiller was anxious that he and his movie star buddies were being seen as completely out of touch with the real world and were keen to ensure that, hey, it was okay everybody, we know we can be ridiculous with our massive pay packets and pampered lifestyles.
Not to mention their pretentions to making something profound out of what is essentially a game of let's pretend. Therefore Stiller's Tugg, who became known for a series of lamebrained action epics, the latest of which we see a trailer for before the opening credits, is sincere enough but clueless about his growing self-consciousness as a performer who wants to be treated entirely seriously and be given the ultimate in validation, the Best Actor Oscar. His co-star Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr) has already been there, done that, and has five of the statuettes under his belt: his latest is a gay monk drama we also see a trailer for.
So you would think that Kirk has nothing left to prove, but he is so intent on getting the adulation losing himself in his roles method-style requires that he goes to risible heights, such as playing a black character in this new war film by undergoing a medical procedure to turn him into an African-American. Tropic Thunder is packed with such potentially offensive humour, yet manages to get away with it because the characters are lacking crucial self-awareness about exactly how idiotic they are being. It helps that the cast are talented enough to sell what could have been a tricky proposition and we go along with it because we know that they know of which they speak.
This is Hollywood sending itself up, a near two hour, foul-mouthed version of Gene Kelly's "Dignity, always dignity" skit from Singin' in the Rain. Also appearing is Jack Black as Jeff Portnoy, a drug-addicted Chris Farley type who has made his name with feature length fat jokes and fart humour that the public lap up - we're actually implemented in this too as we may not be happy to watch Simple Jack, but we have made huge hits out of the most moronic entertainment served up to us. By the time the director (Steve Coogan) of the film within the film has sent the stars out in the middle of the jungle to get to the soul of his out of control movie, unwittingly leaving them stranded and at the mercy of local drugs lords, the cast are well on their way to proving their mettle and showing that this acting lark can be most improving to your person - you get the impression they're only half-joking about this. Still, there are enough laugh out loud moments in this to justify their indulgence, and ours. Music by Theodore Shapiro.