As a conservative, I am all in favor of political incorrectness and think that it should be encouraged at every opportunity. As a libertarian, I believe that free speech must mean the freedom to give offense — though I also believe in the sort of gentlemanliness that was once defined as the property of the man who never gives offense unintentionally. Moreover, even though it seems obvious to me that there are far worthier targets of the satirist’s vitriol than either “developmentally challenged” or just plain stupid people — neither of which, after all, can help it — I do not find the use of the word “retarded” or “retard” intrinsically offensive. Neither, for that matter, am I bothered by “crippled,” though I know this puts me several jumps behind the socially progressive in the race for perfect sensitivity and the ultimate euphemism that will put an end to offensiveness altogether.
For all these reasons, I don’t mind reporting that the funniest thing about Ben Stiller’s movie, Tropic Thunder — I had almost written the only funny thing about it — is the politically incorrect part about “Simple Jack,” the movie that supposedly all but ruined the acting career of Tugg Speedman (Mr. Stiller). In case you haven’t been keeping up to date with the latest causes of the outrage industry, the movie has given rise to calls for a boycott on account of its use of the word “retard” and its general invitation to laugh at the mentally handicapped. It has also anticipated criticism on account of Robert Downey Junior’s portrayal of Kirk Lazarus, an Australian method actor who has donned black-face to portray a black man — “I’m the dude playing a dude disguised as another dude,” he says — but the movie seems to have been given a pass on that one.
It might just be worth pointing out that, as is so often the case when such cries are heard from the advocates of sensitivity and inoffensiveness, they (mostly) result from a misreading of the movie. It is certainly not the retarded who are Mr. Stiller’s main target here, but rather the artistic pretensions of Hollywood, the vanity of its thespian elite and the bogus compassion-chic of a culture which equates the cheap emotion to be wrung from a portrayal of the mentally sub-normal with cinematic greatness. That having been said, however, there are two or three moments in the movie where it is not Mr. Stiller’s Tugg Speedman who is the butt of the satire but his cruel caricature of Simple Jack — who, fortunately, is not a real person but Hollywood’s comically inadequate idea of tragic innocence.
Most of the outrage has been directed at the following bit of dialogue between his character — as Tugg — and Mr. Downey’s, who shows a similarly comical over-earnestness about his craft by insisting on staying in character as the black soldier in Vietnam he is portraying. “I don’t break character until the DVD commentary,” he tells his admiring fellow actors. “Everybody knows you never do a full retard,” says Lazarus then, in character as the supposedly pop-culturally savvy ghetto-denizen.
“What do you mean?” asks Speedman apprehensively, still stunned by the blow his reputation has suffered from Simple Jack.
“Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man. Look retarded, act retarded: not retarded. Count toothpicks to your cards. Autistic, sure. Not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump? Slow, yes. Retarded, maybe. Braces on his legs. 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.”
The only thing worse than Speedman’s full retard, he goes on to note, was Sean Penn’s in I Am Sam, so that bit of gratuitous film criticism is another reason for the satire — as it is certainly a legitimate target. But the offense-takers concentrate on that word “retard” which, one of them has said, amounts to “hate-speech.” With such power conferred upon it by the censors and boycotters and linguistic prohibitionists, it may well become so, too, but in this context you would have to try awfully hard not to see it reflecting more on the intelligence of Kirk Lazarus and Tugg Speedman than it does on that of Simple Jack. Like the movie itself, Lazarus is inviting us to laugh at the mental handicap of movie actors, as in this moment of confidential chat between the same two characters.
“There were times while I was playing Jack where I felt — retarded. Like, really retarded.”
“Like the dumbest m*********** that ever lived?”
“When I was playing the character…”
Well, nobody’s outraged on behalf of the wounded feelings of Hollywood’s darlings. And a good thing too! Take away both self-important thesps and stupid people as satirical targets and you would scarcely have any satirical targets left. As it is, it’s hard to imagine the film’s real life objects of ridicule — if there are any apart from Sean Penn — recognizing themselves in their portrayal here. Or anyone else’s recognizing them either. Even Tom Cruise’s ludicrously over-the-top studio head — which is way too heavy-handed either for cutting humor or for the cameo it is supposed to be — is too generic and will remind audiences rather of similar characters in other movies than of anyone real.
That’s the problem with the movie as a whole. This is a picture about a bunch of none-too-bright actors who suddenly find that what they think is a movie is real life. Sounds like a good idea for a movie. And it worked a treat in Galaxy Quest. But it doesn’t take long for us to recognize that real life isn’t real but a movie as well. Once the dispensable British director (Steve Coogan) is comically taken out of the picture (Oh, sorry! Spoiler, er, alert. Sort of), there are no deaths or serious injuries, either among the actors or, so far as we can tell, among the drug gang of which they find themselves the prisoners while on location in Southeast Asia — in spite of thousands of rounds of automatic weapons fire and a number of large explosions. It’s all just a movie after all, where nothing is really at stake. To me, that means that there is a certain insipidity about it even in its funniest parts. Like most Hollywood satires, it just isn’t mean enough.
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, media essayist for the New Criterion, and The American Spectator‘s movie and culture critic. His new book, Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, is published by Encounter Books, as is his previous book, Honor: A History.
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