Critics: All’s fair in war and satire

Times Staff Writer

It’s one of “Tropic Thunder’s” most talked-about scenes and perhaps its most politically incorrect. In the new R-rated comedy, Oscar-winning actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.) counsels flagging action star Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) on what it takes to win awards when playing a mentally disabled character. Speedman needs the advice because his recent turn as a farm boy in “Simple Jack” was a fiasco.

“Never go full retard,” Lazarus tells Speedman. Actors who win critical acclaim, including Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” and Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump,” Lazarus adds, play partially disabled. Those who go “full retard,” such as Sean Penn in “I Am Sam,” get shut out during awards season.

Advocates for the mentally disabled seized on the scene in their protests against the new comedy and launched a national film boycott. “Name calling is a subtle but malicious practice that only serves to perpetuate stigma, fear, intolerance and more,” Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said at a protest at the “Tropic Thunder” premiere Monday.


“Tropic Thunder’s” production company, DreamWorks, and distributor, Paramount, said the criticisms were misguided. Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the film, has said that the movie, a satirical look at Hollywood, is poking fun at self-important actors, not the mentally disabled.

Quite a few film critics appear to be agreeing with the studios and the filmmaker, not the protesters.

Shriver said in an e-mail that his position remains the same. “We welcome a diversity of opinion but are advancing the opinions of those who are most affected by these stereotypes and taunts. For us, it is their opinions, not the critics’ that matter.”

Some review excerpts:

* “A coalition of disability-advocate groups is organizing a boycott of ‘Tropic Thunder’ based on what they see as the offensiveness of the ‘Simple Jack’ gags. . . . But comedy needs the right to be offensive, and Stiller at least has the courage of his convictions: When he uses the word ‘retard,’ it’s deliberate, not casual.” -- Stephanie Zacharek,

* “If you’re part of the group that’s protesting ‘Tropic Thunder,’ claiming that the movie’s humor comes at the expense of the mentally disabled, then you may have lots of company in your picket line. The new comedy directed by Ben Stiller desecrates pretty much all that is holy, including Vietnam veterans who write books, recovering drug addicts, pandas, Russell Crowe, the overweight, the flatulent, small Burmese children and whoever currently owns the rights to ‘Run Through the Jungle.’” -- Peter Hartlaub, the San Francisco Chronicle

* “ . . . a scene in which Lazarus criticizes Speedman for ‘going full retard’ in ‘Simple Jack’ is a put-down only of overweening, ambitious actors who take roles as physically and mentally challenged characters because they’re proven Oscar-bait.” -- Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post

* “ ‘Tropic Thunder’ is drawing fire from special interest groups for . . . its frequent use of the word ‘retard,’ but discerning audiences will know where the humor is targeted. And they’ll be laughing too hard to take offense.” -- Christian Toto, the Washington Times

* “The script’s references to ‘retards’ have generated some pre-release controversy, but advocates for people with learning disabilities should find something worthier to protest; the target here is the pretensions of movie stars who think that by adopting a stammer they can understand the problems of the people they portray.” -- John Beifuss, the Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

* “Stiller isn’t making fun of those with mental retardation. He’s skewering an industry that honors actors who prove their seriousness by taking such roles.”

-- Daniel M. Kimmel, the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette

* “Despite what you may have read lately, the biggest target of ridicule in ‘Tropic Thunder,’ a flashy, nasty, on-and-off funny and assaultive sendup of the film industry, is not the mentally retarded. Rather, the true targets of this extreme comedy’s free-flowing contempt are the stars, makers, brokers, miscellaneous supplicants and even die-hard fans of the movies, who are all portrayed as challenged in some fashion: intellectually, ethically, aesthetically, sartorially, chemically, longitudinally, you name it.” -- Manohla Dargis, the New York Times

* “If actors like Kirk Lazarus or Tugg Speedman ever had to confront a mentally challenged person or a true wartime enemy, ‘Tropic Thunder’ would be a riskier and more resonant comedy. Within his showbiz-humor limits, though, Stiller proves to be a gutsy writer-director and performer.” -- Michael Sragow, the Baltimore Sun

* “Not only is ‘Tropic Thunder’ guaranteed to offend, it already has. One of the mock films it references, ‘Simple Jack’ and its story of a developmentally challenged young person who talks to animals, uses the tag line ‘Once upon a time . . . there was a retard.’ This has so upset advocacy groups that news reports say a coalition of them is intending to call for a nationwide boycott to protest ‘the movie’s open ridicule of the intellectually disabled.’ But it would be regrettable if ‘Tropic Thunder’s’ undeniable excesses, including having an actor indulge in the 21st century version of blackface, blinded viewers to the reality that, like it or not, there is genuine humor and palpable satiric intent underneath the waves of unnerving bad taste and political incorrectness.”

-- Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times.

* “The scene in which the derisive Alpa Chino [Brandon T. Jackson] nails Lazarus’ recitation of black-uplift homilies as nothing more than the lyrics to the ‘Jeffersons’ theme is funny; but the one in which Lazarus quietly explains to Speedman that his ‘Simple Jack’ character failed because he made the mistake of going ‘full retard’ -- rather than softening his character with cuteness in the manner of ‘Forrest Gump’ -- is so on-the-nose accurate, it takes your breath away.” -- Kurt Loder, MTV

* “. . . the film’s repeated use of a slur against the mentally disabled has led to calls for a boycott of the film . . . by some who consider it to be hate speech. But the film’s real target is Hollywood and the tropes, stereotypes and cliches it uses to pander to the lowest common denominator, and which are applied here with the same intent but with tongue firmly planted in cheek.” -- Duane Dudek, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.