Several months ago, the red-band trailer for Tropic Thunder suggested that not only could Ben Stiller's Hollywood satire be summer's most surefire gutbuster, but also that its trailer-within-a-trailer — featuring Stiller as the developmentally disabled title character of the Oscar-bait drama Simple Jack — portended perhaps the best movie never made. (And look! It even has its own Web site!) But having seen Thunder and thus the degree to which Simple Jack plays a role in the story, we think we got our fill: "You went full retard, man" Robert Downey Jr.'s Method actor (in blackface!) tells Stiller's slumping action hero. "Never go full retard." His logic is crystalline, but alas, its political incorrectness is drawing even deeper consideration this morning as disability advocates wage war on the R-Word:
It’s just good clean fun, the studio might say, pointing out that the movie also pokes fun at racial stereotypes. It’s a sendup of old Hollywood films that trotted out able-bodied actors in disability drag, like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Sean Penn in I am Sam. Stiller isn’t laughing at people with intellectual disabilities, I can imagine his publicist saying. He’s laughing at the way Hollywood portrays them. But for the estimated 14.3 million Americans with cognitive disabilities and their families, such arguments may be problematic. These people share a history of segregation and exclusion, and report that what many call the “R-word” reinforces negative social attitudes just as surely as racial, ethnic and sexually oriented slurs do. ... “What we are seeing already is a cause of great concern,” [said Peter V. Berns, executive director of the disability activist org The Arc of the United States]. “People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have had a lot of pejorative labels assigned to them over the years. I’d like to think that we as a society are getting past that, but we are seeing one after the other examples that this is not the case.”
Indeed, Stiller's joke is on Hollywood and the likes of Hanks, Hoffman, Penn and others — not to mention the punchlines implicit in an industry whose urge to outdo itself seems directly inverse to its ability to moderate taste. That's all Tropic Thunder is in the end, and really, if it didn't go "full retard" the same way it goes "full megalomania" (with Tom Cruise) or "full junkie" (with Jack Black), it would be an even more protest-worthy clusterfuck of pulled punches and missed opportunities. We'd hate it, and those 14.3 million Americans (and their families) would still face much worse every few years come Oscar season. They still may, of course, but we have faith that once the "full retard" is out of the bottle, it's gone for good. Let the healing begin.