Going “The Full Retard”: How Far is Too Far?

"Tropic Thunder" protestors in Middleton, CT
All they want is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T: “Tropic Thunder” protestors in Middleton, CT

Many thanks to Roger Ebert and his website editor Jim Emerson for posting my letter to the editor regarding the protests by some disability advocates over the “retard” humor in Tropic Thunder. As stated in my letter, I think most people will see the film and understand that its target of satire is not the developmentally disabled but rather the silliness of Hollywood, specifically the spoiled-brat nature of pampered stars and the venality of devious agents and greedy producers. As far as it goes, the Hollywood satire in Tropic Thunder is spot-on and, for the most part, hilarious. Ben Stiller really knows what he’s doing here, and clearly this is his most ambitious film to date. Which is to say, I enjoyed the film on its merits and I’m pretty much aligned with Ebert’s 3 ½-star review. And while I have no intention of using this blog as a political forum, it must be stated that these protests — over the frequent use of the word “retard” and the film’s demeaning depiction of developmental disabilities — are worthy of serious mainstream attention. But, as always happens with protests by minority groups that the majority don’t appreciate or understand, the objections over Tropic Thunder have already been swept under the carpet, as far as the public and mainstream media are concerned. It’s obvious (from Stiller’s promotional appearances on “The Daily Show” and elsewhere) that DreamWorks publicists have declared the protests off limits for discussion — either that, or the talk-show hosts have no desire to prod Stiller (and others in the film) with questions about the controversy. One way or the other, discussion of this matter has been effectively squelched by those in charge of the film’s promotion. As a result, it’s not much of a controversy as far as the public is concerned; it’s already risen and faded in the course of the past few days.

Now, I happen to believe that when it comes to humor, nothing is sacred and nothing should be sacred. Everything and everone is fair game, and we (the public) have the luxury of deciding what’s funny and what’s offensive. I’m not easily offended, so most of Tropic Thunder was right down my alley…and really, isn’t it about time someone applied some satirical payback to Willem Dafoe’s Christ-like death in Platoon? One of the joys of watching Tropic Thunder is seeing how Stiller & Co. dismantle the symbolic excess of that scene and Oliver Stone’s heavy-handed direction of it.

So, when Stiller first shows us a clip from “Simple Jack” — this movie’s answer to Sean Penn’s Oscar-baiting performance in I Am Samit seemed clear (to me at least) that the satire was (1) way over the top and devoid of malice, and (2) the target of satire is the fact that Stiller’s character, whose film career is slumping, has made a last-ditch effort at respectability by playing a character who’s mentally retarded, since everybody knows the running joke that playing disabled is a fast-track to an Oscar nomination.

So far, so good — I’m always delighted when someone applies intelligent satire to topics that are generally considered taboo. When a soldier in Tropic Thunder suffers a fatal head-shot and his blood sprays like a geyser for what seems like at least two minutes on screen, well, that tells you exactly what kind of film you’re watching. Everything is pushed to extremes, and for better or worse, that’s the current state of Hollywood’s sense of humor. As far as the major studios are concerned, subtlety is box-office poison.

But here’s where Tropic Thunder gave me the creeps, in terms of how far it’s willing to go to get a laugh: In pushing the “retard” humor as far as it does, the film tips the scales from acceptable over-the-top satire to brazen insensitivity and unintentional cruelty. This is most conspicuously evident in a line from the opportunistic agent played by Matthew McConaughey: When Stiller’s character tells him he’s going to adopt a child, the agent laments “Yeah, well at least you get to choose yours — I’m stuck with mine,” and Stiller (as director) pans over to a photo of the agent’s son, who is developmentally disabled. The clear message is, if you’re the parent of a retarded child, you got screwed by God. With one line of dialogue, all disabled people are rendered undesirable.

This gets a big laugh, but the humor is genuinely dangerous: Some of the protestors have suggested that this joke alone could prompt potential parents to abort preganancies if their unborn child is diagnosed with any kind of disability. Now that’s pretty damn serious, wouldn’t you say? When you add “Simple Jack” and the scene in which Downey Jr. (in blackface) advises Stiller’s character about the hazards of going “the full retard” in a bid for the Oscar, it’s hard to avoid the suggestion — through sheer repetition of the word “retard” — that the word itself is acceptable and that using it is harmless.

Well, no. It’s not harmless. For many people, “retard” is as offensive as “nigger,” and repeating it perpetuates a demeaning perception of the developmentally disabled that disability advocates have struggled for decades to eliminate from our society. It’s not harmless, because a lot of people seeing Tropic Thunder will not make the subtle distinctions between the content of the humor and its actual intentions. And because Tropic Thunder will eventually be seen by millions of viewers too young to attend an R-rated comedy, is there any doubt that the ignorant, insensitive use of the word “retard” will exponentially increase among ignorant, insensitive grade-schoolers and teenagers?

I’m all in favor of letting anyone make any film they want to make. You want to make a wacky comedy about a child-raping pedophile who steals from food banks? Go right ahead. The viewing public will pass its verdict, and that film will be accepted or rejected accordingly. And while I personally found 90% of Tropic Thunder to be hilariously effective as satire, I also think it’s still possible to go too far, to the point where the line between humor and cruelty begins to blur. Tropic Thunder steps over that line, regardless of the intentions of its creators.


5 Comments

  • barbara

    August 15, 2008

    You left out the second part of the line. After her say “yeah, you get to choose your” he says “I’m stuck with mine.” As a parent I found that line a sucker punch.

  • Jeff Shannon

    August 15, 2008

    Thanks, Barbara! I added that dialogue in my quote, since it’s definitely the second hit in a one-two punch.

  • Christine

    August 15, 2008

    kudos to you, Jeff!

    As an actor with a disability and a disability advocate for a nonprofit arts org(member of the coalition protesting the film), you expressed many of our concerns and points of view clearly and articulately. Personally, I disagree about how successful the film actually was at achieving it’s goal and found that rather than satirizing Hollywood, it’s sophomoric and unsophisticated treatment of the subject matter played right into the hands of what it attempts to satirize. Once again, going for the cheap laugh and appealing to the lowest common denominator won out. Even though I generally don’t like Ben Stiller, I thought he had more substance than that. Apparently not. At the end of the day, TT is even more of a hipocrite than the industry itself. At least Hollywood acknowledges all it cares about is the bottom line. But I applaud you for an intellegent and unbiased assessment

  • Johnny

    August 18, 2008

    What on earth makes you think that Matthew McConaughey’s kid is supposed to be disabled? It’s a photograph without any context, and the young actor in it is certainly not developmentally disabled in real life.

    Isn’t it a spectacular rush to judgment to assert that an overweight, vacant-looking kid must be developmentally disabled? That’s *actual* bigotry, no?

    Please don’t presume to apply your unlikely context to facts that don’t actually support your claim.

  • Arbogast on Film

    August 18, 2008

    Isn’t it a spectacular rush to judgment to assert that an overweight, vacant-looking kid must be developmentally disabled? That’s *actual* bigotry, no?

    No, just playing the percentages.

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