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Movies: Tropic Thunder

Let's begin this review by demolishing any credibility I may have accrued over the years: I like Ben Stiller. Maybe not all the films he's done--well, maybe only a few of the films he's done, on reflection--but I think he's a genuinely funny guy, and the projects he personally helms tend to make me laugh. And although he can really only do two characters--lovable loser and Zoolander--they're not bad, as characters go.

Combine that with my recently-developed Robert Downey Jr. man-crush and my seeing Tropic Thunder was a foregone conclusion.

Plus, the film is getting remarkably high scores on Metacritic. That, honestly, was something I instantly regretted seeing, certain that my only hope of truly enjoying the movie was to go in with expectations as low as possible.

My prescience proved correct, in this case. If I'd gone in expecting a run-of-the-mill Stiller flick, it would have been a revelation. Instead, I found it a very funny but often disjointed movie that, while well worth seeing, fell short of the gutbuster promised by some reviews.

Downey Jr. was amaaaaaaaazing; Stiller (as writer and directory) wisely opted to give most of the funniest material to his costars and play the straightman; Jack Black's character came in a distant third in terms of interestingness (as Flickr calls it), and was often eclipsed by that of Brandon T. Jackson, whose banter with Downey Jr. composes the funniest scenes in the whole caboodle.

You never really feel like the four men are a cohesive group, but that is sort of the point: each is a self-absorbed actor, obsessed with himself and largely indifferent to others. Still, the lack of chemistry (aside from the Downey Jr. / Jackson friction), and the preponderance of action sequences as overblown as those they are presumably spoofing, sometimes make the film feel like a collection of comedy sketches

Also, the movie is awful. Unforgivably terrible and a blot on the film industry. Get your self to believe that before seeing Tropic Thunder and you'll have a blast.

Now, let's talk about the Simple Jack controversy for a moment. For those unawares, some folks have been demonstrating outside of theaters showing Tropic Thunder because, in the film, Ben Stiller plays a developmentally disabled character, and there are many usages of what the protesters refer to as "the r-word" (and then follow up with "meaning 'retard'", since otherwise you'd be going "which r-word? Republican?")

I appreciate where these folks are coming from but, man, they are totally off the mark on this one. In context there is absolutely no ambiguity about who iTropic Thunder is making fun of: that is, actors who seek our roles in films such as Rain Man and i am sam in the explicit hopes of garnering an Oscar, rather than the disabled people they portray. In fact, it's not even accurate to say that Stiller "plays a developmentally disabled character" in the movie--Stiller plays an actor who plays a developmentally disabled character, and is soundly mocked for that decision throughout.

Advocate Patricia E. Bauer acknowledges as much in this Washington Post editorial condemning the movie, but says "the studio was careful to build nuance and subtlety into the film's racial humor ... but there's no on-screen presence countering the Simple Jack portrayal." What she has failed to grasp is that the "never go full retard" scene, on which most of the criticism has been heaped, is exactly the on-screen denouncement she demands, with Downey Jr. exposing Stiller's (and, by extension, Hollywood's) shallowness for all the audience to see.

The controversy over Tropic Thunder is very reminiscent of that over The Last Temptation of Christ 20 years ago. In the latter instance, many religious folks were outraged that the film depicted Christ living a normal life--avoiding crucifixion, marrying, having children, growing old. Such a portrayal, they argued, denied Jesus his divinity. Yes, it did! That was the point! In the film (um, spoilers here, if you care), Satan temps Jesus with that life--everything we see of it is essentially a proposal put forth by the devil. But Jesus overcomes this last temptation and dies on the cross. By seizing on these scenes, and ignoring the rejection of them, protesters basically turned the meaning of the film on it's head and then groused about its message.

So too with this movie. The Simple Jack scenes are offensive, but that's a feature, not a bug. Indeed, much of Tropic Thunder is devoted to deconstructing just how offensive they are. And, as someone who has previously railed about the portrayal of developmentally disabled people on film, I am thrilled that Tropic Thunder pretty much guarantees that we won't see another The Other Sister for a decade or more. Regardless of how you feel about "the r-word", I think that's something we can all applaud.

Posted on August 22, 2008 to Movies


Ah, but Republican and retarded are synonymous. Just look at their leader, Chimpy McHitlerburton.

Posted by: Hopey Changy on August 22, 2008 9:30 PM

Then they should definitely recognize that Robert Downey Jr. himself is an affront to the politically correct in all of us. Look at his last name. Down..Downey...D- Down's!? Egad! The man's surname could be used in a derogatory manner to address someone with disabilities! Also, the Jr. is waaaaay out of style. Junior Mints basically took the pop culture "Junior" Niche back in the age of Seinfeld. Abbreviating just looks tacky. I think that perhaps an inborn need to go through a terrible bout with drugs, come out on top and continue to make above par movies should be called Robert Downey's Syndrome. (For the kids, of course; it would be Jr.)

Posted by: Spoon on August 23, 2008 12:09 PM

I believe this is the first review of Tropic Thunder I have encountered that didn't specifically mention Tom Cruise's role in this film. Honestly, I abhor Mr. Holmes, but I was genuinely taken in by how brilliantly his character complimented the film.

Posted by: Keith on August 23, 2008 4:00 PM

Those anti-retard protesters are so retarded! Byeeeeeeeeeee!

Posted by: A retarded cop on August 24, 2008 8:19 PM

I love Retarded Policeman! It's the funniest show on the internets. Plus, it'd be the perfect thing to throw in the face of those protesters.

"Hey protesters, have you seen Retarded Policeman?"

"No! That's outrageous! You can't call someone retarded!"

"But he calls himself retarded."

"That's even more outgrageous! Portraying a handicapped person and having themselves say they're retarded?!"

"But he is retarded."

"Well, obviously someone is provoking him into calling himself retarded and he just doesn't know any better."

"So, wait, you're saying that he's too retarded to know that he shouldn't call himself retarded?"

"Yes! No! Wait! *sputter*"

Posted by: Sam on August 25, 2008 8:21 AM

How do you feel about how the Farally brothers have portrayed the developmentally disabled? It seems as though they've worked very hard to show them as normal folks. I would think that Stiller's time spent on "Something About Mary" helped to influence his Simple Jack story line, at least a little bit.

Personally, I think most families with developmentally disabled loved ones and those DD folks themselves roll their eyes in disgust when they here the stories on protesters like this bunch.

Posted by: HDC on August 25, 2008 9:16 AM

Had to look up The Other Sister. At first I thought you meant Riding the Bus With My Sister, which appears to be exponentially worse. I've never seen it, but I've heard enough sound bytes of Rosie O'Donnell's character to last me for a long, long time.

Posted by: Keith on August 25, 2008 9:47 AM

Good morning Matthew, Christopher Lee Harris here, we, at one time, worked together at SCHARP. I was fortunate enough to see you again on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. I was on my way to a meeting below Tiger Mountain with management and a Darth Vader cardboard image [he had a hemeda lightsaber at that time].

I assure you, he sends his love.

SO, Ben Stiller...what about Permanent Midnight [?] I find that to be a role outside of his either/or persona, as described in your most recent post. What say you [?]

Much love,

Posted by: Christopher Lee Harris on August 25, 2008 10:15 AM

Whoa! Yeti overload! 2 posts in 4 days? Settle down bro.

Posted by: other chris on August 25, 2008 11:18 AM

I love Ben Stiller too! And I've been getting the "come protest with us" emails by the dozen. Through an Aspergers mailing list, believe it or not.
All that protesting made me really want to go see the movie. Thanks for the warning; I think I can do that. I am the queen of low expectations.

Posted by: Goldie on August 25, 2008 2:39 PM

Nobody should see a movie unless my self-righteous advocacy group says so. Fuck you and your fucking freedom. We're offended here. Well, not me personally. I mean, I have a lot of black friends and such.

Posted by: Meddling Fucktard on August 25, 2008 5:58 PM

Robert Downey Jr. cracks me up... he's got a real knack for not taking himself too seriously

Posted by: movie junkie on August 26, 2008 1:13 AM

Did anyone else catch the fourth wall break by Rob Downey Jr?
"I'm the dude playing a dude disguised as another dude."
This line only makes sense if delivered by Downey himself to the audience (as opposed to if it was delivered by the Australian Kirk Lazarus or the African-American Sgt Osiris).

Posted by: Tracey on August 26, 2008 7:42 AM

Javent seen the movie but love that he makes fun of that movie "genre". When Rosie O'Donell did it in "Riding the Bus with My Sister", I thought... enough is enough.

Posted by: CJ on August 27, 2008 7:48 AM