Movie Mix

Protest over Use of the Word 'Retard' in Stiller's 'Tropic Thunder' Misses the Target

We can't let art turn into syrupy, sanctimonious after-school specials just to avoid being labeled as offensive.
On Tuesday night I attended the premiere of Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. Strolling in past the protesters, (groups representing individuals with developmental disabilities), was a little troubling, as I have rarely passed a picket line that I wasn't tempted to join.

Protesting wages for car wash workers? Call me and I'll be there! Demanding a fair wage for WGA writers? Been there, done that. SEIU, AFL/CIO, UAW: I'll walk your line. But protesting the contents of a comedy, that's a line I won't cross, or in this case I will cross. Literally.

The protesters' concern centers around the repeated use of the word "retarded" to describe the inept performance Ben Stiller's character, Tugg Speedman, has given while portraying a mentally handicapped man in an absolutely awful Oscar baiting movie entitled Simple Jack. Call me kookoo, no offense to any members of the kookoo community, but the target of Tropic Thunder's satirical humor is squarely aimed at Hollywood movies and the people who make them, (not to mention the movie going public) and though I don't doubt the sincerity of the boycotters, it seems a little intellectually challenged.

If you came of age on a diet of Vietnam movies where heroes fell dramatically in a rain of bullets -- think the Christ-like demise of the Willem Dafoe character in Platoon or the closer-than-close-up pathos of Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's Born on the Fourth of July -- and you found yourself simultaneously weeping and rolling your eyes at the same time, and if you're like me and never even went to see Tom Hanks give his 3-hanky performance in Forrest Gump or Sean Penn's moving turn in I Am Sam because you already knew what his performance would be like -- poignant and yet dignified in its restraint, after all -- as Downey's character in the movie notes, "he didn't go full retard" -- then you'll enjoy Tropic Thunder.

Call me a curmudgeon, not to offend any members of the curmudgeon community, but at this point, I'll take satire over sincerity. Why? Well, for one reason, I was a John Edwards supporter and I bought into his 99 percent truth telling, personal mythology and seemingly selfless desire to lead the nation, so forgive me if I've grown suspicious of sensitivity.

I wouldn't be narcissistic enough to say I know what Ben Stiller had in mind, but upon reflection, I can't help but think that Stiller held a mirror up and what was reflected was not only the self absorption of actors, but the greed and narcissism in America today.

Sure, I'll never forget Meryl Streep's moral dilemma in Sophie's Choice, laboring over which child to save, but Tropic Thunder gives us Mathew McConaughey ponderously weighing the merits and morality of acquiring his own G4 at the expense of sacrificing his best friend. Its a laugh-out-loud commentary on the winner-take-all state of the American economy. As for Tom Cruise's surprising role as greed incarnate? Is it some demeaning contrived character? Well, I have actually heard much of his dialogue delivered verbatim, from a real life Hollywood power broker, so I found it funny not for its outrageousness, but for its comedic verisimilitude. And at time when everyone in the public eye has been labeled self important and ego driven from Eliot Spitzer, Chuck Hagel, and Peter Cook to the new narcissist poster boy himself, John Edwards, what could be more topical than a movie about narcissism and the lure of fame, power and pussy?

I fear that protests like this will retard (so to speak) the creative process and threaten to turn art into syrupy sanctimonious after-school specials. Besides, if any group should protest, it's actors, but unfortunately, we really don't have a leg to stand on. If we want to be reminded of how silly we are, all we have to do is think about Sharon Stone telling the world that the recent earthquake in China was caused by bad karma.

But if you need any more evidence of how ridiculous and vain actors are, as the lights went up in the movie theater, my husband who has all of three seconds of screen time playing an over-the-top French waiter in an over-the-top parody of an over-the-top movie trailer in Tropic Thunder, leaned over and asked me if his performance was, "just over the top or too over the top?" Not to be outdone, as we drove home, I waxed nostalgic about a phone call I once received from a film producer, not unlike one of the rants delivered by Mr. Cruise in the film, during which the producer informed me that if I didn't follow his wishes, I would never work again, and he would repeatedly do things to my person that I couldn't possibly detail in this publication. With a sigh, I fondly recalled that moment as a wistful reminder of a time when I had just enough of a profile in Hollywood to receive a threateningly memorable call like that. Oh, the good old days.
Writer and actress Annabelle Gurwitch currently prognosticates on both politics and pop culture on National Public Radio's Day to Day. Her column Fired Up appears regularly in The Nation, and her essays have appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, Child, Premiere, and Penthouse.
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