We hear it all the time, that comedy cop out meant to assuage the offender of all implied guilt:
“It’s just a joke.”
Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Robert Downey, Jr., Steve Coogan, Brandon T. Jackson, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 13 Aug 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 19 Sep 2008 (General release); 2008)
Be it a race under attack or a particular person getting the crude raspberry, it’s still the same:
“It’s just a joke.”
Sometimes, they easily get away with it. The supposed target takes control of the situation, granting the ersatz-satirist some sage dispensation. In other instances, like in the case of Rajan Zed and his Hindu followers, the insult takes on a life of its own. When Mike Myers’ horrendously awful The Love Guru appeared to belittle Indians and their religious heritage, the aforementioned leader went on a nearly year long mission. Zed called for preview screenings, then a boycott, and after the film’s dismal box office performance, an apology. Of course, he got none of his demands. Instead, all his well meaning whining did was up his profile among grassroots gamesters and fringe political organizations. While he claimed victory for the movie’s miserable receipts, the hollowness of the comedy was a much more solid reason for its failure.
And now it’s happening again, albeit on a much larger and less avoidable stage. With its release today, Ben Stiller’s new scathing industry spoof Tropic Thunder is facing harsh words and possible action from groups such as the Special Olympics and the American Association of People with Disabilities. The reason - a character named Simple Jack and the rampant use of the word ‘retard’. In the film, Stiller’s stunted superstar (action movie icon Tugg Speedman) is shown having attempted to woo Oscar gold by playing a mentally handicapped young man with a bad bowl haircut and a mouth full of fake teeth. Simple Jack was never a real person - just a part he played. The ruse didn’t work, and Speedman became even more of an industry ‘joke’ because of it.
As with any helping of humor, there are two sides to the story. For anyone who’s seen the film, Simple Jack is definitely the brunt of a few jokes. During the sequences where we see snippets of the film within the film, as well as when Speedman is forced to recreate the character for a bunch of drug smugglers, Stiller’s portrayal pushes the boundaries of insult. He stammers and stutters. He says ridiculously goofy things and twists up recognizable clichés meant to suggest sensitivity inside a drooling, unrefined dope. It’s not simpleton as savant so much as an easy laugh milked (perhaps) one too many times.
As if to emphasize the movie’s position, the far more scandalous character of Kirk Lazarus (an Australian arse who had himself surgically altered to look like an African American) gives Speedman some advice. “Never go full retard”, he says. Running down a litany of actors who have used the intellectually challenged and outright impaired for their run at Academy recognition - Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, etc. - Lazarus points out that only obviously fake performances garner critical praise. They seem ‘safer’ to the viewer. But in Speedman’s case, he went all the way into total impediment. Alas, the actor faced the same fate as Sean Penn when he went “full retard” in I Am Sam, according to Kirk.
To the aforementioned groups, none of this is remotely funny. They find the inference insensitive and the actuality downright indefensible. They have slowly started drumming up support for a protest, and by today’s opening, it’s obvious that there may be some picket lines in larger urban markets. For them, it’s not a matter of subtleties or free speech. They see one of their frequently marginalized and misunderstood membership turned into a borderline hate crime. In a classic case of PC powered apologizing, they purposely pick a high profile target and set their agenda on stun. No one thinks they will stop the release of the film (especially not them). Instead, this is publicity as chest puffing coattail riding. They get their message out, the movie plays, and everyone waits for the issue to die down until the inevitable DVD release.
It’s hard to say whether or not these groups have a point. As someone who grew up in the pre-Willowbrook exposé days of America, the word “retard” just doesn’t hold much contemporary weight. It was used frequently by kids trying to circumvent actual socialization and often had a guilt-laden alternative meaning. This critic had a best friend whose sister was severely mentally handicapped. Over the 15 years of our friendship, I never once met her. For families in the ‘60s and ‘70s, institutionalization was the only option outside of hard work and home care, and before Geraldo Rivera’s heartbreaking takedown of the state-sponsored industry, it was easier to warehouse your ‘special child’ than actually try to care for them. So while my pal’s household technically had five members, I only ever saw four.
Later on, in high school, I dated a girl whose brother suffered from severe mental impairment. In his case, their mother and father decided against hospitalization. Instead, they treated him as normally as possible, even inviting him to sit in on our pre-prom photos. While he sometimes ‘embarrassed’ his sister with his uncontrollable behavior, he was never unloved or unwanted. Indeed, the entire family (and myself included) tried to make him feel as integral and important as any other aspect of our lives. Even now, some thirty years after we dated, I wonder about that young man, and hope he’s had a productive and problem-free life.
For parents and siblings in similar situations, the word ‘retard’ has to sting. It has to remind them of how society sent them oblique (and sometimes outright direct) messages about their loved one’s proper place. Over the last forty years, organizations such as the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress have made major strides in gaining understanding and acceptance of these often misunderstood individuals. Honestly, only the most arrogant, heartless individual would set out to purposefully mock and ridicule such an innocent target. “This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media,” said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. “We think it’s time to end.”
The key phrase in that soundbite (courtesy of ABC News), is that most of the complaints center around an equally misguided mandate. Like Zed before, few who are arguing for the boycott have actually seen Stiller’s performance, heard the previously mentioned dialogue in context, and understand the overall purpose of the subplot. It goes beyond “It’s just a joke.” Granted, the rogue word is used dozens of times, but never in reference to an actual individual. No one calls Speedman a “retard”. No person with actual mental retardation is so readily dismissed. In fact, Tropic Thunder‘s use of the term is rather meta. It’s meant to suggest something bigger - the need for famous celebrities to put on false facades to win respect (and maybe a prize or two). It’s no coincidence that the character who calls out Stiller is the one who’s gone to the greatest extremes to hide behind overly obsessive sham personas.
Which leads to a much bigger point. Robert Downey Jr. offers what many might consider a minstrel show like turn as Lazarus. Remember, this is a Russell Crowe like superstar who had plastic surgery so he could play black. Indulging in every kind of stereotypical slam possible (including several sections of outright race baiting), it could easily be the movie’s most risky creative choice. Add in the exaggerated make-up, and there should be a massive minority backlash.
So why no clamor? The answer arrives in the form of rapper turned actor Alpa Chino (played by Brandon T. Jackson). While guilty of a few racially biased flaws himself, the hip hop impresario takes Lazarus to task every chance he gets. He knocks the character off his thespian high horse, everpresent to provide a rational counterpart to the egomaniac’s “I can do anything” ideals. Besides, Lazarus finally realizes the error of his ways during the last act. His mea culpa is short, sweet, and apparently good enough to avoid the weight of 400 years of onerous oppression.
And it’s not really a matter of free speech. Sadly, everyone considers it an absolute, and while there are Constitutional rights and duties, there is no such thing as a wide open ability to express oneself. We are not dealing with one of the recognized legal limits (yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater, etc.) however, we are involved in what’s called the elemental quid pro quo. Phrased another way - you do have the right to say whatever you want. However, there is an equal and reciprocal right to be held accountable for said speech. While no one is suggesting that Stiller and company are guilty of a crime, they do have to put up with said protest. But what these organizations have to remember is that such leeway is mutual. They can surely complain, but they can’t call for the outright removal of such ‘hateful’ words and images.
In some ways, there’s an uneasy, mutually beneficial conspiracy at play. Just like Zed did a few months back, tying oneself to a major media event (like the release of a film) drives interest to what are frequently forgotten about organizations. While it’s clear that their intentions are noble, those defending the mentally challenged must secretly recognize the publicity pluses. And Tropic Thunder doesn’t really mind the turmoil. They know that audiences will still turn out, and the added curiosity factor may actually drive a few more into the theater who may not have given the movie a second thought. Both sides will probably be disappointed, however. Simple Jack is a minor element of a film packed with potential provocations. One wonders if Jewish groups will complain about a certain famed Scientologist’s turn as a balding, hirsute financier with a major potty mouth and a bad case of “white boy can’t dance-itis”.
In the end, “It’s just a joke” may be the best way to truly handle any and all problems caused here. It’s a succinct shorthand that minimizes the many loose ends while proposing a plausible out for both sides. Indeed, Tropic Thunder is so inside, so insanely insular in its laugh out loud shamelessness that, while it will definitely inspire a reinvigoration of the complained about word (as in Downey Jr.‘s comment about going “full retard”), many won’t make the connection to actual individuals. Those who do are probably already prone to marginalizing all minorities in the first place.
As in many of these circumstances, the sturm und drang will eventually die down, and in its place will be the same outstanding issues, the same personal and political battles to fight. In the end, “It’s just a joke” seems indicative of the eventual importance the situation suggests. It’s not an excuse so much as a reality. And like all concepts of cleverness, one’s reaction is indicative of who they are and where they stand. Some will get the joke. Others can’t and won’t. And that’s the way it should be.