You know, I’m glad that disabilities rights activists are drawing attention to the “retard” scene in Tropic Thunder. It’s one of the funniest moments in the film, and what convinced me to go see it. Yes, I’m that guy.
Tropic Thunder is a movie of a lot of giggles and a few big laughs, but perhaps more than anything else, catharsis. It’s painful to sit through the end of the year Oscar season, when serious drama after serious drama comes out in an effort to throw a couple dozen performances at the wall and hopefully get some nods. It’s even worse to sit through a summer where you, at best, hope that the one or two non-sequels provide a respite from seeing the same actors do the same things over and over again. Thunder tackles this head on, not always in the funniest way, but consistently incisive enough that even when you’re not laughing, you can’t deny its truth.
Tropic Thunder is a movie about a movie within another movie. Briefest of plot synopses: the movie is a Vietnam War “go serious” vehicle for Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) and Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), all paired up with five-time Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr., who makes this movie as much as he made Iron Man), a Russell Crowe method acting clone. As the movie goes off the rails, the director and producer decide that they’re going to make the movie by dropping the actors in the real jungle, and filming what happens – a Blair Witch Projectesque making the movie by having the actors not act.
Where the movie hits its mark is in the reaction of these acting archetypes to the uncontrolled environment they’ve been placed in – they’re in the midst of a massive heroin operation’s territory in Laos, with the realization dawning on some of them more slowly than others. Lazarus has undergone a procedure to darken his skin in order to look more authentically black, and his absolute refusal to break character, particularly with an actual black person standing right there, is as great an indictment of the overrated method acting process as anything I’ve ever seen. Speedman, undergoing a crisis of confidence, takes far longer than he reasonably should to realize what’s going on – not out of the banal stupidity that infects too many of Stiller’s characters, but out of a desire to figure out who he is and why he does what he does.
All of which, of course, leads to the retard scene. The scene, with the “controversy” surrounding it, is one of the least controversial things imaginable. It has nothing to do with mocking the mentally disabled and everything to do with pointing out Hollywood’s fascination with mental disability as the key to critical accolades. Speedman did a movie called Simple Jack, which just from the trailers alone was the kind of offensively simple-minded dreck that’s put out in order for its makers to feel like they’re doing something worthwhile. The debate that Lazarus and Speedman have is about the value placed on performance within their little enclave, and just how “retarded” you can act in order to get an award. It’s not mocking those with disabilities – it’s mocking those who exploit disabilities in order to get a statue the following spring.
And it’s funny, thankfully.
One of the best parts of Tropic Thunder is that it’s a long-form exercise in getting the joke. Robert Downey, Jr. isn’t in effective blackface to mock black people, he’s in effective blackface to mock actors. Jack Black isn’t a heroin addled joke of a man to make fun of junkies, he’s that way to mock the way that studios knowingly exploit addiction in manic comic actors (Farley, Belushi, Williams).
In fact, it’s the movie’s inability to recognize that fact in an unadvertised cameo that leads to the flattest part of the film. Tom Cruise plays a balding, potbellied producer whose constant stream of profanity and heartlessness are meant to provide some comic commentary on the business side of the industry. Instead, by the end of the film, you realize that one of the most mockably excessive actors in the world was in the movie…and they never even came close to touching on Scientology, or his meltdowns, or his odd marriage to Katie Holmes or his continual efforts to find Oscar worthy roles or his height obsessiveness or anything that makes Cruise such a controversial figure. Instead, Cruise is asked a couple of times to do some physical comedy which, when you see him struggling through it, makes you realize that he’s really, really bad at it. Should there be a sequel, there has to be a way to mock Cruise for his role, which is utterly flat and self-conscious.
Anyway, go see Tropic Thunder. And just try to pretend that Tom Cruise isn’t in it.