by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & here's nothing like a couple of good controversies to get some notoriety for a new film.

First there's Robert Downey Jr., who's doing his entire part in blackface. For those who are outraged: It's called "ironic comedy." Downey plays a full-of-himself Australian actor who is so into what he's doing, so "Method," that when he lands the part of a black American soldier, he shifts into what he believes to be a "black American" speech pattern and accent. He even goes through a "pigmentation alteration procedure" of the sort that was once done in real life for the book and resulting movie Black Like Me. In that case, it was a serious social experiment; in this case, it's done for laughs. But it's also a satiric commentary on just how far an actor will go to, you know, get his character down.

Then there's the business about Ben Stiller's character, a quickly fading leading man who had recently starred in an awful movie playing -- oh, what's the right term? -- an "emotionally challenged" man. Well, whatever the current proper politically correct term is, in the script he's referred to as a "retard." Taken out of context, as it has been in one of Thunder's publicity posters, that can be degrading. But again, the film uses irony here. Enter Downey's character, who goes on a rant about how the movie industry presents "retard" characters, and it's a brilliant piece of Hollywood-bashing.

Watch carefully for the guy playing the hot-tempered, unscrupulous Hollywood producer named Les Grossman. He's only in a couple of quick scenes, bald and big-nosed. (Uh-oh, watch out, the character's Jewish. Alert the p.c. squad!) And he's played by a couch-jumping Scientologist whom you might recognize -- played so well, in fact, that he steals the film with his over-the-top yelling, cursing and dancing. Sign this guy up for more comedies.

The opening frames of Tropic Thunder -- which will turn out to be one of the best films of the year -- make it look like you're in for a bloody action film about a daring rescue mission in Vietnam. Then you find out that it's going to be a film about making a film. And then the laughs start, a little nervously at first. Soon, however, they're coming crazy-fast, then somber, then crazy again.

What's happening here is something you don't get to see in many big-budget movies. Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen (Stiller also directed) have written a script that lobs some serious but satiric attacks at problematic actors and the power of celebrity, fires a well-aimed condemnation at the greedy Hollywood machine, and balances all of that with some fall-down funny business.

The actor characters who are plopped down in the "Vietnamese" jungle (actually, Hawaii) don't realize that everything around them has gone wrong. Those local heroin-processing thugs? They really are trying to kill the actors.

Along for this wild ride of an ensemble piece are Jack Black as an actor with a drug problem, Nick Nolte (grizzlier than ever) as a "war consultant," and a handful of other colorful characters. Somehow it turns into a full-fledged action film, but the laughs rarely stop. Compared to the recently released Pineapple Express, which is really stupid and very funny, Tropic Thunder is really smart and very funny.


Rated R

Directed by Ben Stiller

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Nick Nolte

Palouse Cult Film Revival: Little Shop of Horrors @ The Kenworthy

Wed., Feb. 8, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
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