I caught the trailer for Tropic Thunder while seeing another film. I knew it was a movie I was going to see. The trailer kept me laughing the whole time.
When I heard people were protesting the movie I was curious over what it was about. I figured it probably had to do with Robert Downey Jr. playing an African-American. When I heard it was over the use of the word “retard” in a scene, and knowing how sensitive people can be about certain words, I was almost positive the scene was taken out of context. So walking into the theater to see Tropic Thunder, I didn’t put much thought into the controversy. I wasn’t going to let someone tell me what to think before I had a chance to see it myself. And as it turns out, I was right.
It wasn’t hard to figure out which scene had made people angry. Ben Stiller’s character Tugg Speedman, an actor desperately trying for an Oscar, acted in a movie called Simple Jack about a young mentally challenged stable boy. The joke in that scene isn’t the stable boy, but the washed-up actor making a last attempt to re-establish himself as an artist. During the scene, Oscar-winning actor Kirk Lazarus, played by Downey, says it was doomed to fail because Speedman went "full retard." He explained that you can never get an Oscar if you play a "retard" without a special talent, like Sean Penn tried to do in I Am Sam, which didn’t work. "Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, ‘Rain Man,’ look retarded, act retarded, not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards … Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, ‘Forrest Gump.’ Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe … But he charmed the pants off Nixon and won a ping-pong competition. That ain’t retarded. You went full retard, man. Never go full retard," Lazarus said.
Watching, I realized that, despite a few other people in the audience, I was the only one really laughing. Everybody instead was giggling like school children do in church when they know they shouldn’t be laughing. But why should we have to hold back from laughing? Isn’t that why we go to comedies?
I didn’t think the film’s repeated use of the word “retard” was offensive. While in some contexts it can be, I didn’t find that within Tropic Thunder. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, disability groups say the film is "sure to fuel schoolyard taunting." Schoolyard taunting? I thought this was an R-rated film. I’m pretty sure that nobody walked out of that movie thinking, “Wow! That was hilarious. I think I’ll go make fun of ‘retards’ now.”
One of the main demonstrators against the film is Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. However, in his opinion piece "What ‘Tropic Thunder’ Thinks Is Funny," Shriver admitted that he had not had a chance to see the movie. Based on reading the script, Shriver said the movie "is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities." But to say that it was an "unchecked assault" is to say that the filmmakers set out to purposefully hurt the emotional well-being of those with intellectual disabilities. And if that was their intent, why only devote one scene to such an assault and clutter the rest of the film with jokes unrelated to their goal? The movie was not referencing the mentally challenged in a mean-spirited way in order to belittle them, and I did not get the feeling that the scene was written to intentionally ridicule them. If anyone should be protesting that scene it should be the C-level actors it’s making fun of.
We used to be able to go to the movies and laugh at what was funny, whether it was politically correct or not. It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when comedy classics like Blazing Saddles and The Producers hit big even as they poked fun at racism and Hitler. In fact, I don’t think that Blazing Saddles would make the big screen today with all the sensitivity surrounding anything remotely controversial. People would look past the perfectly crafted mockery within obviously racist characters and just see racist characters. Though no Blazing Saddles in political incorrectness or humor, Tropic Thunder was exactly what it was supposed to be: funny. If we begin to ask comedies to be funny in a certain way, we also lose the diversity within the genre of having something for everyone.
We shouldn’t have to sacrifice either laughs or boundaries. While comedies will always be hit or miss with some people, it’s better than spending a lifetime watching lukewarm romantic comedies like Must Love Dogs. And whether you liked Tropic Thunder or not, you have to admit that no part of that movie was lukewarm. It went for comic gold and refused to forfeit the funny for the mildly amusing but less offensive alternative.
My advice is, if you’re easily offended or just lack a sense of humor, Tropic Thunder might not be the best movie for you. In which case, you always have the option of just staying home.