Reprinted from the tampabay.com blog. Written by Steve Persall
Tropic Thunder’s offense isn’t simple, Jack
I don’t usually agree with groups protesting Hollywood movies. Artistic freedom and all that. Most of the time molehills eclipse the mountains, providing good p.r. for advocacy groups that temporarily prove they’re doing something, anything for their constituents.
The current hubbub over Tropic Thunder strikes me as a different affair. Protesters from the Special Olympics and American Association of People with Disabilities picketed the movie’s premier Monday night in Los Angeles, angered by a running joke in Ben Stiller’s movie that I have to agree goes too far.
Tropic Thunder is an inside-Hollywood joke; too inside I believe for moviegoers who aren’t part of the movie industry. You can read my previous blog post on that situation here. The jokes that have folks up in arms are part of that inside-gag reflex.
I’ve recognized for years, even joked about it privately, that playing physically, emotionally or mentally challenged characters are a Sun Pass to Academy Award nominations. Just look at the list of past winners for proof: including performances in Rain Man, Forrest Gump, My Left Foot, Shine, As Good As It Gets, Ryan’s Daughter, and Ordinary People. Only alcoholics and hookers have more dependable track records.
“Civilians” don’t usually think that way. Tropic Thunder forces them to do so, without any degree of tact. Stiller plays an action star whose nomination grab led to the title role in a fictional movie titled Simple Jack, complete with the stereotypical trappings: goofy haircut, garbled speech, spastic body movements, etc., like a junior high kid making fun of kids in special ed classes. The movie flops, with no nomination secured.
We see clips from that movie, and watch Stiller recreate the role on stage for jungle kidnappers whose home video collection consists only of that movie. But the part of Tropic Thunder that infuriates some folks occurs when Robert Downey Jr., playing another actor, explains to Stiller’s character that his mistake was going “full retard.” In a too-long monologue, Downey lists all the Oscar winning performances that held back a bit of “retard.” I’m sure that conversation has existed in real-life. Making it public for embarrassment goes too far.
There’s a big difference between the way Tropic Thunder approaches the subject of mentally and physically challenged people and the way the Farrelly brothers did in films such as There’s Something About Mary, Stuck on You and (as producers of) The Ringer, which had Johnny Knoxville feigning being mentally challenged to fix a Special Olympics race.
The Farrellys don’t talk behind the backs of mentally challenged people. They put them up on the screen to speak for themselves, usually making more sense than the “normal” people in starring roles. If they’re used as punching bags, the bags always punch back. We see them as objects of ridicule only for people whom we wouldn’t wish to be. We see them rolling with the punches, and trading a few, too.
Sick humor is still evident but it’s noteworthy that many of the same people now protesting Tropic Thunder also publicly praise the Farrellys for treating mentally challenged people with an odd dignity, sometimes casting them in roles that don’t require someone mentally challenged. Many times they’re given the funniest lines and most gratifying comebacks in the script. In other words, the Farrellys treat them as anyone else would be treated, which is what they want and most of us are usually too skittish or cruel to do.
DreamWorks flatly states that Tropic Thunder won’t be edited or altered in any way to soothe protesters. (Although the studio yanked a promo Web site dedicated to Simple Jack when the first rumbles were heard.) That’s fine; they have the right to put whatever they wish on screen. The boycott that advocacy groups are calling for won’t dent this week’s box office take for a wildly hyped comedy with big stars.
But when you’re sitting in the theater watching Tropic Thunder and the topic of Simple Jack is raised, check yourself to see if you’re laughing, and why. You may laugh, and you may not like it.