By Pete Vonder Haar | August 13, 2008

It’s always an iffy proposition when Hollywood tries to exhibit self-awareness. Approached correctly, you end up with something like Robert Altman’s “The Player,” f**k it up and you get “Burn Hollywood Burn.” And even in the best of cases, the industry folk holding a mirror up to themselves inevitably stop short of going for the jugular. Only true iconoclasts like Altman could get away with alienating the corporate interests running the movie business, and only then because the total budget of most of his movies equaled roughly five minutes of CGI in “Transformers.”

Ben Stiller is no Robert Altman (and here I’ve just won 2008’s ‘No S**t’ prize). The playful showbiz skewering on display in his eponymous 1992 TV show focused more on the actor’s questionable impersonation skills than anything of real substance. Further, as his recent forays into romantic comedy and kids’ movies have proven, Stiller is assuredly not interested in biting the hand that feeds him. This is why “Tropic Thunder,” soaked with profanity and gore as it may be, is still a very shallow swipe at the moviemaking business. And Stiller is still Stiller, meaning leading man Tugg Speedman is yet one more shade of the vaguely dim goof he portrays in most of his movies, even if “Thunder” is decidedly less family friendly than his usual efforts.

The good news is there are plenty of laughs to be had, and the “movie within a movie” plot (big name actors strive for combat authenticity by shooting guerilla-style in the jungle and end up running into a real-life heroin ring) is at least handled better than in “Scream 3.” The role of Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) had to have been written with Stiller’s old TV pal Andy Dick in mind, and both Jay Baruchel and Brandon T. Jackson – as rookie actor Kevin Sandusky and rapper “Alpa Chino,” respectively – have their moments. But the real story is Robert Downey, Jr. As Kirk Lazarus, the method man who “doesn’t get out of character until they do the DVD commentary” and surgically darkens his skin to play the black lead, Downey is a wonder. I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t think they could pull this off, but he absolutely destroys.

To top everything off, Tom Cruise may just have resurrected his career with the role of Les Grossman, the producer who must weigh the relative costs of rescuing Speedman versus simply writing off the whole production. Here Cruise gets exactly what he needed after “Lions for Lambs” and various… personal issues. Once again, it’s an obvious caricature of the sleazy exec, and most of the enjoyment comes from seeing cinema’s former golden boy dropping f-bombs and awkwardly dancing to hip hop, but I enjoyed it.

Yet for all the talk of how “satirical” the Stiller-helmed “Tropic Thunder” is, that’s not really the case. Stiller and company aren’t exposing anything about the industry most of us didn’t already know, he’s just saying it really loudly and spraying blood everywhere while he does. And while few of us will deny a vicarious thrill at the idea of a bald, overweight Cruise, less would’ve been more, especially in light of the final scene.

Sure, the joke trailers at the beginning are legitimately hilarious (none more so than the pretentious gay monk drama “Satan’s Abbey”), but it’s one thing to laugh at Stiller for portraying a superhero for the sixth go-round (or Black in a fatsuit fart comedy), it’s another to realize that sequels to both “Night at the Museum” and “Madagascar” are in the works, and “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” grossed over $120 million.

Who is it they’re poking fun at again?

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