Any discussion of toxic masculinity, or the ways in which brotherhood in all its forms can get twisted, is likely to be muted by second-guessing…
I will not give away any jokes here (though too many reviews will), just one small concept: In "Tropic Thunder," Ben Stiller plays a not-very-talented actor who has made a widely loathed movie called "Simple Jack" (explicitly a parody of Sean Penn's "I Am Sam") that flopped ignominiously, failing to earn him the Oscar nomination he so desperately, transparently (and cynically) expected. Both Penn and "I Am Sam" are mentioned by name -- as are the Oscar-winning performances by Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" and Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump." They should have thrown in Robin Williams in "Patch Adams." (Look for the glimpse of Penn and some other well-known actors in award-seeking stunt-roles near the end.)
From start to finish, the target of the satire here is Hollywood. As Roger Ebert describes it: "The movie is a send-up of Hollywood, actors, acting, agents, directors, writers, rappers, trailers and egos..." There's even a funny moment with a key grip that's even funnier if you know what a key grip is.
And yet, according to an article in Monday's New York Times: "A coalition of disabilities groups is expected as early as Monday to call for a national boycott of the film 'Tropic Thunder' because of what the groups consider the movie's open ridicule of the intellectually disabled."
This has got to be a joke.
Um, if "Tropic Thunder" is ridiculing the intellectually disabled then Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle" and Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" were vicious racist diatribes against African-Americans; Sydney Pollack's "Tootsie" was blatant misogynist propaganda; the entire works of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and Judd Apatow are anti-Semitic outrages; and "Rain Man," "Forrest Gump" and "Shine" shamelessly ridicule the mentally and developmentally challenged. (I'm going to leave the question open on "I Am Sam" because I've only seen the trailer, which was excruciating -- and, I assume, unintentionally ludicrous.)
The parody is broad: Stiller plays a Stallonesque actor who wants to be a sorta Pennesque or Brandoesque one; Robert Downey, Jr. basically plays Russell Crowe (with a touch of Sean Penn and Samuel L. Jackson); Jack Black plays a version of the "Norbit"/"Nutty Professor" Eddie Murphy (not in blackface); Brandon T. Murphy plays Larry Fishburne in "Apocalypse Now" (back when he was known as Larry); and Jay Baruchel, with the mannerisms of a young Jeff Goldblum, plays the stereotype of the scrawny, bespectacled rookie kid in the actors' platoon. Those characterizations of their characters are all overstatements, but overstatement is this movie's stock-in-trade. (And "Pineapple Express" is already a parody of this parody.)
And yet, the NYT reports:
Timothy P. Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, has joined the call for a boycott, telling the Times: "Not only might it happen, it will happen."
"I came out feeling like I had been assaulted," said David C. Tolleson, executive director of the [National Down Sydrome Congress] who saw the movie.
Mr. Tolleson and Peter V. Berns, executive director of the Arc of the United States [formerly the Association for Retarded Citizens of the United States], said on Sunday that they could not recall a similar coalition of disabilities groups forming against a film. Mr. Berns noted that some people had objected to the use of the word "retarded" in "Napoleon Dynamite," a comedy released by Fox Searchlight and Paramount's MTV Films unit in 2004.
"But there's really been nothing near this magnitude," Mr. Berns said.
I feel like I have just been assaulted by ignorance. You really have to wonder if this is a publicity stunt for "Tropic Thunder," since it is precisely this kind of obliviousness that the movie spoofs. Stiller and Robert Downey Jr.'s characters discuss playing a "retard" -- and the joke (I really have to explain it?) is the shameless exploitation of disabled characters as Oscar-bait vehicles for pampered Hollywood actors seeking accolades. Their repeated use of the word "retard" as if it's not offensive is the very point itself. (If you want to see the "Never go full retard" clip, it's here.) Downey's character, the Acclaimed Australian Actor, is both taunting and offering "artistic advice" to Stiller's not-so-bright action-movie star, and how anyone could miss that, especially when seen in the context of the movie as a whole, is beyond me. This is one of the most obvious japes in the movie, though far from the most outrageous, but as a running gag its intention is so clear that I can't imagine any responsible adult so recklessly misconstruing it for any other reason than to generate notoriety.
And, see? It's working already. More publicity for "Tropic Thunder"! You have to see it just to find out what the tempest in a teapot is about, right? You're quite welcome.
P.S. Tell me if you think the filmmakers make a huge, HUGE mistake over the end credits. I think they do.
NOTE: The second image at the top of the page is from the 2005 comedy "The Ringer" in which Johnny Knoxville pretends to be mentally disabled in order to fix the Special Olympics. It was endorsed by the Special Olympics . The word "tard" is used by a character who says, "What? Is that politically incorrect, too?"
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