Amid all the potshots taken at Hollywood in Tropic Thunder, there’s one actor stereotype missing: the comedian who, after a couple of successes, turns into a boring mainstream guy, making shitty romcoms and even shittier CGI kiddiefest. You know, the Ben Stiller type.

It may be that lack of self-awareness that keeps Tropic Thunder from really transcending into something amazing, but I tend to think it’s the fact that many of the jokes feel like they’re one beat away from being legendary is what holds the film back from possible classic status. Make no mistake: I laughed loud and hard throughout this film, and I enjoyed every minute of it and have no problem enthusiastically recommending it to you. But time and again the movie’s jokes reach for comedic nirvana and fall just ever so short.

A great example is Robert Downey Jr, playing Kirk Lazarus, an Australian actor so self-serious and so Method that he has his skin dyed black to play the role of an African American soldier. It’s a brilliant conceit, and Downey plays it wonderfully, really getting the hilarious nuances of a guy staying in a not all that convincing character at all times… but that’s it. The joke is pretty much explored in the set-up and initial scenes with the character, and then they build to almost nothing. There’s a breakdown scene at the end, but I’m not even sure how funny it’s supposed to be (in a movie that’s essentially one giant in-joke, it’s like the ultimate actor’s in-joke); like many of the jokes in the film, the Lazarus stuff never really takes off and goes anywhere.

Which, again, isn’t to say that it’s not funny. The targets Stiller and screenwriters Justin Theroux and Etan Coen are aiming at get hit, and they get hit dead center. There’s some serious inside baseball happening here – the movie, after all, is about a bunch of self-absorbed actors on location making the most expensive Vietnam movie ever – but I feel like none of it is so inside that the people who watch Entourage couldn’t enjoy the hell out of it.

What’s most impressive about Tropic Thunder is the way that it takes a one joke premise and stretches it out and makes it work. The script keeps things mostly together, even though some scenes feel improvised in the wrong way (a scene at a river, where Stiller’s character leaves all the others behind, is an irritating mess), but the actors are what smooth over the rough edges. As everyone expected as soon as it was announced, Downey is the highlight in a role that can only really be seen as edgy in a country where race relations have taken on a bizarre ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ quality. It’s like if we don’t talk about racism, it isn’t there, and Downey’s role – and to a lesser, but no less potent extent, that of Brandon T. Jackson (a rapper turned actor named Alpa Chino, probably my favorite fake name ever) – addresses issues of racial and cultural identity in a very funny way. Both characters are pretending to be the black men they aren’t, and I think there’s a lot of clever commentary going on there.

The rest of the comedic actors do well enough: Stiller plays the clueless muscleguy again, a character I think he struggles with within himself, while Jack Black almost returns to our good graces as a smack-addicted fat funnyman (almost. He has a lot more penance to do). The real winners are those on the sidelines, though. Jay Baruchel, as the surprise hero of the film, is  the only human being on display, and more lovable than ever for it. Danny McBride is predictably hilarious, as is Steve Coogan. Nick Nolte delivers a really wonderful performance as the grizzled, handless Vietnam vet whose story the fictional Tropic Thunder is telling. Matthew McConaughey is surprising in the role that Owen Wilson vacated via sliced wrists, that of Stiller’s agent, who finds that the onset crisis in the film makes him confront his own soul.

But the buzz is going to come from Tom Cruise, ensconced in a fat suit and under a bald wig, covered in thick curly chest hair, playing the huge, broad, over the top, scenery chewing, hammy studio boss. Cruise’s role is funny, and as a cameo it’s brilliant. But Stiller’s mainstream sensibilities come into play, and Cruise just keeps coming back. And coming back. In fact the film ends with him doing a lengthy dance over the credits; the whole thing is a case study in running a great joke into the ground. There’s a sense of Saturday Night Live around the way the joke gets ruthlessly wrung out, and what should have been a small bit that we talked about for years has already run its course by the time you leave the theater. Again, it’s an example of the way this film is within touching distance of classic and just misses.

It’s hard to watch Tropic Thunder and not realize that this is really the only good movie that Stiller has made since Zoolander… the last film he directed. I remember being a huge Ben Stiller fan way back in the day, religiously watching The Ben Stiller Show and getting excited as he made his way up the comedy ladder. I was one of the seemingly few people who saw the brilliance of Zoolander on its initial release, and I thought that Stiller was poised for an exciting career that could cover gross-out comedies with the Farrelly Bros, indie films like The Royal Tenenbaums and his own spectacular directorial efforts. I even went with the really mainstream stuff, like Meet The Parents.

Somewhere it all went wrong, and the 21st century has seen me learn to cringe at the mention of Stiller’s name. I’ve seen a Stiller name drop go from a sign of hipness to the sign of being a comedy plebe. But I’m ready to let him back in. I’m ready to reignite my love affair with Ben Stiller. As far as I’m concerned, he’s four for four with feature directorial efforts (while deeply flawed, The Cable Guy has shining moments of sheer genius), and if he continues directing movies – especially ones as funny as Tropic Thunder – I’ll keep seeing them. If he just stars in or lends his voice to them, though…

8 out of 10