Movies: Ben Stiller, A-list Director

"Tropic Thunder" is the funniest movie of the summer—so funny, in fact, that you start laughing before the film itself has begun. This needs explaining. Ben Stiller's movie is about a gaggle of pampered, self-important Hollywood folks who go into the jungle to shoot a big-budget Vietnam War movie (called "Tropic Thunder") and stumble into real danger when heavily armed drug smugglers take them for the real deal. But like any "real" movie, "Thunder" starts with a few trailers. The first is a frenetic ad for "Booty Sweat" energy drinks, which turns out to be the product of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), who we will soon discover is one of the stars of this Southeast Asian war epic. This is followed by more priceless fake trailers of upcoming movies from "Tropic Thunder" stars. Tug Speedman (Stiller) is a fading action star ("Scorcher VI") who's tried (and failed) to earn respectability by playing a retarded farm boy in "Simple Jack." The belligerent, drug-addled comedy star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is seen in "The Fatties 2," a fart-filled sendup of every lowbrow Hollywood comedy in the past flatulent decade. And the multiple-Oscar-winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) is glimpsed in his upcoming forbidden-love epic as a medieval monk making eyes at Tobey Maguire. Can the movie itself live up to this inspired warm-up? No problem. This raucous, low-down commentary on Hollywood filmmaking, war movies, narcissistic actors and the thin line between makebelieve and reality is the most giddily entertaining, wickedly smart and cinematically satisfying comedy in a season overloaded with yuk-'em-ups. If there's any justice, "Thunder" (which opens Aug. 13) should be the breakthrough moment for Stiller as a director.

Stiller the director? Mention his name, and the first image that probably comes to most minds is a pathetic suitor standing in a doorway facing Cameron Diaz with a gob of semen dangling from his ear. The Farrelly brothers' gross-out classic "There's Something About Mary" (1998) catapulted Stiller into the pantheon of comic stars. He's become one of the 10 most highly paid actors in Hollywood, and arguably one of the most powerful. But the funny thing was, acting stardom was never his real dream. Stiller is now in Vancouver, starring in a sequel to his popular family film "Night at the Museum." Sitting in a hotel room drinking coffee after a long day's shoot, the 42-year-old star remembers the moment he discovered his calling—to make movies. He was 20, performing in a 1986 revival of John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" on Broadway, when he picked up a video camera and made a little movie called "Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man" with the show's star, John Mahoney. "He played the most arrogant, alcoholic a––hole, passed out in the gutter at the Plymouth Theater with a bottle in his hand. I remember showing it at a party and people laughing. It was one of those moments where I was going, 'Oh wow, this is good. I like this feeling. This is sort of what I want to do'."

Hollywood had other ideas. Not long after that, Stiller snagged a job as a writer-performer on "Saturday Night Live." Most aspiring comics would have killed for this slot, but he quit after five episodes because "SNL" didn't want him to direct short satiric movies for the show. He came closer to realizing his ambition with "The Ben Stiller Show," a 1992 Fox series that ran for 12 episodes, garnered an Emmy and a cult following, but was canceled when it landed near the bottom of the ratings. But in this show (which is available on DVD) you can get a true sense of his range as a performer, his gifts as a satirist fluent in the clichés of our media-saturated culture. Fans of the show (which Stiller created with coproducer and writer Judd Apatow) still cherish his hilarious impersonations of Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Tom Cruise and self-help tycoon Tony Robbins, or the "Cops" parody where he tries to arrest Moses for parting the Red Sea without a permit. Here was someone capable of holding up a uniquely distorted fun-house mirror to our self-conscious age.

Stiller got to direct his first movie in 1994. "Reality Bites," which he starred in with Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke, was a funny, hip Gen-X romantic comedy, but it died a quick death at the box office. Two years later he made "The Cable Guy," a dark, deliberately grating comedy of menace whose failure was magnified by the fact that Jim Carrey earned a then-unheard-of $20 million to star in it, which seemed to increase the media's dislike for the movie. It would be five years before the next Stiller-directed movie: "Zoolander," his wacky, wild satire of the fashion world. It's since become a cult classic—Stiller says it's the movie most people want to talk to him about—but it had the misfortune of coming out right after 9/11, and America wasn't ready to laugh.

But by the time of "Zoolander," Stiller had already become a bona fide A-list actor. His stardom, however, is harder to classify than Will Ferrell's or Adam Sandler's or Jim Carrey's: they're comic brand names who carry their movies on the force of their trademark personas. Stiller has always been more of an ensemble player, at his most popular when he's playing the brunt of the joke. Humiliation is the default mode of all of Stiller's most commercially successful roles. In "Meet the Parents" (2000) and its wildly popular (and wildly inferior) sequel "Meet the Fockers" (2004), he's a psychic punching bag for Robert De Niro; in "Night at the Museum" he plays hapless divorced father Larry Daley, reduced to taking a job as a night guard at the Museum of Natural History, where the wax dummies come to life and terrorize him. Some of his funniest performances, however, have been playing the flip side of the bedraggled Stiller persona. The fashion model Derek Zoolander may be a dimwit, but he's a supremely arrogant, self-confident one. The preening, pumped-up fitness guru in "Dodgeball" is also an idiot, but he's so in love with himself he doesn't seem to notice. Stiller could do serious, too, playing junkie/writer Jerry Stahl in "Permanent Midnight."

You can see his skills as a team player on the set of "Night at the Museum 2." He's playing a scene with Hank Azaria, who's a vengeful Egyptian mummy come to life, and no two takes are alike. "Who are you, Larry Daley?" improvises Azaria. "And why don't you speak in complete sentences?" It's unclear how Stiller keeps a straight face, because it's a dead-on critique of the way he plays the stumbling character—and so many of his tentative, beleaguered heroes, guys who forge through life in a defensive crouch, anticipating insult.

"Tropic Thunder" is also very much an ensemble comedy, but there's no doubt whose show it is: Stiller not only directed it, he co-wrote, coproduced and stars in it. Every frame is stamped with his lifelong obsession with what Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara's son was born into: the lives of actors. The four "Thunder" prima donnas—Stiller's Speedman, Downey's Lazarus, Black's Portnoy and Jackson's Alpa Chino, along with the intimidated newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel)—are sent into the jungle by the film's desperate, in-over-his-head British director (Steve Coogan). The production has been plagued by disasters. Back in Hollywood, the obscenity-spewing studio head Lee Grossman (a bald, hilariously repulsive Tom Cruise) is threatening to fire the director unless he gets better footage. Spurred on by the grizzled Vietnam vet (Nick Nolte) whose autobiography inspired the film, the director sends his actors in country without a crew or assistants, hoping to capture grittily realistic reactions. He gets more than he bargained for when real bullets start to fly, and Speedman is taken hostage by the Red Dragon Army, whose 12-year-old boss turns out to be a fan of one of Speedman's most unlikely movies. Downey's Lazarus is the movie's most unforgettable jest. A fanatically committed method actor, he surgically darkens his skin to play the part of African-American Sgt. Lincoln Osiris and refuses to go out of character even when the cameras stop rolling, to the extreme annoyance of the authentically black Alpa Chino. Downey is astonishing: he's so deep into this double role that when the characters' ghetto accent occasionally falters, it slips into an Aussie accent.

Stiller's movie is, of course, filled with in-jokes and movie quotations (look for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"). But it doesn't have an insular, inside-baseball feel because, as nutty as it gets, it actually works as an action movie itself. Shot by John Toll ("Legends of the Fall"), "Thunder" has the production values of the movies it's sending up. (It's rumored to have a budget near $150 million.) In "Zoolander" the fashionista satire didn't quite mesh with the "Manchurian Candidate" plot about assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia. Here, thanks to the inventive, tight script by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, you find yourself caring about the survival of these ridiculous but oddly endearing thespians. The comic momentum doesn't flag, the gunfire and explosions balanced by inspired riffs. One of the best is Downey/Lazarus's memorable discourse to Stiller/Speedman on how to win an Oscar playing handicapped characters—you can't do the "full retard," as Speedman did in "Simple Jack," but only the "half-retard," as Dustin Hoffman did in "Rain Man." And Cruise's blisteringly raunchy cameo (the character was his own invention) may be just the imagealtering career move he needs.

The joke within the joke within the joke is that the making of the comedy "Tropic Thunder" has spawned its own share of war stories. "We called it Ben Stiller's Comedy Death Camp," says Downey, who actually loved working with Stiller but suggests that not everyone on the crew survived the director's take-no-prisoners perfectionism. Acting may be a team sport for Stiller, but not directing. "His process is sublime," Downey marvels. "The first two days we were shooting the scene within the scene where Osiris gets his head shot off. We did that setup 107,000 times! I thought to myself, we're never gonna get off that shot!"

Sitting down for an interview, simply dressed in jeans and a blue shirt over a dark blue T shirt, Stiller seems like a down-to-earth, relaxed guy—until you notice that for the entire two and a half hours he never once leans back on the couch he's sitting on. He's gun-shy about talking about his personal life, going off the record even with innocuous personal stories. (Years ago he got burned when Esquire, taking a joking aside seriously, labeled him a manic-depressive, a fake factoid that has followed him ever since.) When he talks about the making of "Tropic Thunder," it sounds as if he is recalling a pleasant seaside vacation: "My favorite time in life is when working on a film," he says.

His actors wouldn't necessarily agree. "He's incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly driven—almost sociopathic," says Downey. "But his divining rod is always pointing to the same thing: have we given literally every ounce of energy and thought to every frame of the movie? It really is the closest thing to what it must have been like to work with Chaplin," says Downey—who memorably played Chaplin.

"Can Downey get his head any farther up Ben's a––?" roars Jack Black when he hears about the Chaplin remark. "I'll say he's Albert Einstein!" But Black concurs with Downey's assessment of Stiller's obsessive work ethic ("It's that OCD eye") and his generosity. "It's hard not to give yourself sweet spots when you're directing yourself," Black says, thinking of some actor-directors who will shortchange the other cast members so that they can focus on their own performances. "He'd defer to the others. I have a bit of the perfectionist in me, too, and he'd let me linger until I felt I nailed the scene. He's good to his peeps."

It may be Stiller's destiny as a filmmaker to make movies about the movie business. Three of the projects he's developing, including one about Oscar Levant and a movie of the classic Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?", return to his favorite, bred-in-the-bone subject. And in his own life, this second-generation funnyman has recently come full circle. Though he and his family—wife Christine Taylor (who costarred with him in "Dodgeball" and "Zoolander") and their two kids—live most of the time in L.A., he's just bought an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the same building as his parents: the building he grew up in. "It just seems like my family has come together in the past 10 years. It was a pretty hectic household growing up, just because of the nature of what my parents did. There was a lot of craziness—that's just actors and acting. But about a year ago we brought the whole family to New York and surprised my dad for his 80th birthday. We all went down to the playground on Riverside Park. It was this moment of feeling it all come around, seeing my son playing in the sandbox that I played in. So I think it's a great thing for the family that we're all in a place that we want to do this. But we'll see. We'll stick our toe in the water and see how it goes." And if it doesn't go well, don't be surprised if one day he turns it into a comedy.