With constant coverage of every baby bump and trip to rehab, we all feel like show business insiders these days. And co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller makes the most of that with this pointed but ultimately sweet take on Hollywood excess.
The characters are brilliantly introduced via a stream of what at first appear to be pre-feature shorts, until we realize that they are hilarious and only slightly exaggerated parodies of a rap star’s soda commercial and trailers for movies featuring a fading action star (“Global Meltdown Part VI: Here we go again. Again.”), a tubby comic who plays all the parts in low comedies — very low (“The Fatties: Fart 2”) and wants to do drama but is battling a substance abuse problem, and a Serious Actor from Australia who throws himself completely into every role (a trailer for “Satan’s Alley” about the forbidden love of a pair of friars) and has had a controversial medical procedure to darken his skin to play an African-American. They are Alpa Chino (say it aloud) (Brandon T. Jackson), Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). And they are joined by newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a huge career-building Viet Nam War epic, based on the true story of “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte) and directed by first-timer Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).
Everything, of course, goes very, very wrong. When they’re a month behind after five days of shooting and the studio executive (a very funny performance by a major star I won’t reveal) is very colorfully threatening to do many very bad and painful things, Cockburn decides to go commando, so to speak, and take the actors out into the jungle like it was “The Blair Witch Project.” And that is when things really go wrong and the actors get mixed up in some real fighting they think is part of the movie.
Stiller is great at nailing the way that the actors and the people back in Hollywood have such a permeable sense of reality that they buy into whatever is happening at the moment. That may be the way to get an Oscar, but it makes it difficult to deal with actual reality when it occurs. The overlay of these pampered stars (Speedman’s agent is frantic about the failure to provide his client with TIVO) playing tough guys (and they are not the only ones pretending to be tough) is very funny and the inside humor (“I stay in character until the DVD commentary”) is choice. A movie about a fake movie has the truest laughs of the summer.