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‘Tropic Thunder’ will crack you up

Sure, the characters are cartoonish, but the show-biz satire hits the target with blistering precision

If only for making Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey funny for the first time since 1994 or so, “Tropic Thunder” would already qualify as an impressive comedic achievement. But actor-director Ben Stiller’s satire of pampered Hollywood actors and out-of-control action epics mines humor from a wide variety of sources, resulting in a film that delivers wall-to-wall laughs even if, by the time it’s all over, you realize you don’t give a tinker’s damn about anyone on screen.

It’s not that all characters have to be likable or relatable, but when nearly every single person in the movie winds up being a selfish narcissist, it makes it difficult to get too invested in their well-being. Luckily, Stiller and his talented cast (and his co-writers Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen) bombard the audience with enough gags, both silly and clever, to make such qualms mostly moot.

The jokes begin with the very first frames of film through the projector, as we’re introduced to our protagonists via on-screen advertising (rapper Alpa Chino, played by Brandon T. Jackson, hawks his signature energy drink Booty Sweat) and hilarious fake trailers: comic Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) in a flatulence-filled comedy, pretentious and acclaimed film star Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) in an indie drama about gay monks (co-starring Tobey Maguire!), and dim-witted action hero Tugg Speedman (Stiller) pitching “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown,” an environmental shoot-em-up. (Is this the first time rival movie studios have allowed their logos to be used in someone else’s movie? The fake trailers boast New Line, Universal and Fox Searchlight logos even though “Tropic Thunder” is a Paramount/Dreamworks production.)

Soon this celebrity foursome — along with Jay Baruchel (“Undeclared”) as Kevin Sandusky, the one cast member of the film-within-a-film to have bothered to attend boot camp, to read the book on which the script is based, or to even read the script itself — are in southeast Asia to make a Vietnam epic that’s over-budget and behind schedule on the very first day of shooting.

British director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) can’t keep his prima donna cast under control — much to the consternation of vulgarian studio exec Les Grossman (Cruise, nearly unrecognizable under padding and a bald wig) — but Vietnam vet Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte) has an idea to save the film version of his wartime memoir. He gets Cockburn to drop the cast off in the middle of the jungle, where they’ll be surrounded by hidden cameras, giving the movie an air of “realness.”

Until everything goes wrong, of course. Before long, the men find themselves crossing paths with gunmen from a nearby narcotics compound, who naturally think they’re being targeted by the DEA.

Where “Tropic Thunder” is most effective is in its skewering of the pretense and spoiled-rottenness of movie stars. Downey’s Australian character, for instance, in order to get into character as an African-American soldier, undergoes a skin-darkening operation and then remains in character as a black man, over the protests of his actually black co-star. Meanwhile, in one of the film’s best running gags, Tugg’s agent Rick Peck (McConaughey) goes ballistic over the realization that the production has failed to install a TiVo in Tugg’s palatial digs.

Another recurring joke deals with Speedman’s disappointment over not getting an Oscar nod for playing a mentally challenged farmboy in a ridiculous-looking movie called “Simple Jack.” While it’s already coming under fire from people who object to the use of a certain word, the scene where Lazarus explains to Speedman that you should never go “full retard” in a movie is one of the funniest attacks on Hollywood award-baiting I’ve ever heard.

It’s those same ridiculous character traits, however, that will keep most viewers — those of us who aren’t surrounded by film industry crybabies 24/7 — from fully committing to the film. It’s a huge step forward for Stiller as a filmmaker, and the cast (which also includes Danny McBride of “Pineapple Express” as a trigger-happy munitions expert) couldn’t be funnier. Ultimately, though, “Tropic Thunder” is an entertaining, but soulless, night at the movies.