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 Sam — it 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.