Tropic Thunder is a Lightning Rod of Controversy

The storm of controversy surrounding faux-Vietnam War film, Tropic Thunder, emerged late last week when disability advocacy groups began protesting the comedy's portrayal of the intellectually disabled. But the movie's premise, about a group of actors shooting a Vietnam War film – poorly – when the director decides to drop the cast into the middle of an actual war in Southeast Asia, capturing it all on film, is not exactly what raised the ire of these advocacy groups. Instead, one of the film's subplots has caused the uproar.

Tugg Speedman (played by Ben Stiller), the film's star, is reeling from a potentially career-ruining starring role in a movie called Simple Jack, in which he played a developmentally challenged guy who talks to animals. In fact, it was supposed to be Speedman’s Oscar-baiting role, given the success of actors like Tom Hanks, Dustin Hoffman, and Sean Penn as mentally challenged characters.

The protesters, which include groups such as the Special Olympics and the Arc of the United States, certainly have a point. Tropic Thunder takes very broad strokes with the brush of crass language, regularly dropping offensive words throughout the movie. The word "retard" is used very liberally, as Simple Jack"figures prominently in Thunder. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film, which comes out today, but I have read a copy of the shooting script). These groups met with producer DreamWorks this past week, and the studio agreed to modify some of the advertising – most notably taking down the site www.simplejack.com. But the studio wouldn't budge an inch on demands that the film be edited, and the original final cut is what hits theaters today.

Sociologists have plenty of data to back up the claim of the protesters; namely, that flagrant and wanton use of these offensive words makes viewers feel more comfortable using them. But to focus on one offensive epithet in this film is to selectively ignore two things. First, the film is so rife with offensive conceits that absolutely anything in the movie must be taken with a grain of crude, hilarious salt. Prime example: Robert Downey Jr. plays a famous fictional Australian method actor who is cast as an African-American; thus, in order to fully immerse himself in the role, he undergoes skin pigmentation treatment to turn himself black. If that isn’t offensive on paper, then I don’t know what is.

Secondly, the film isn’t really about race relations or the Vietnam War at all. It’s a hilarious, painfully accurate lampoon of the ridiculous Hollywood system that encourages actors to take on roles portraying the mentally disabled, or change one’s race (e.g. Al Pacino in "Scarface," all of the Sharks in "West Side Story," etc.), or even film a war movie in the middle of an actual war. The context in which the "retard" usage appears pokes fun not at the disabled, but at the actors and the film industry as a whole. The studio realized that this film gives it a chance to laugh at itself. They definitely made the right decision.

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