Here’s some data about the film, gleaned from an advance screening of “Tropic Thunder” arranged for me this afternoon by DreamWorks/Paramount.
This post attempts to assemble information that may help readers and advocates frame their own opinions about questions that have been raised about the language used in the film and its marketing, and the portrayal of the character of Simple Jack.
– The Background –
“Tropic Thunder” is a big-budget, R-rated summer comedy made by DreamWorks/Paramount and directed and co-written by Ben Stiller, who also stars. The movie plot centers around a group of pampered actors who are lost in the jungle while making a war movie. Stiller’s character, Tugg Speedman, is presented as a fading action hero who earlier failed in his bid for Oscar glory while portraying Simple Jack, a character with an intellectual disability. Speedman’s portrayal of Simple Jack is featured as a movie within the movie.
A national coalition of disability advocacy groups has objected to the frequent use of the word “retard” in “Tropic Thunder” and its promotional materials. Early promotion of the film described Simple Jack as a “retard” and an elaborate DreamWorks marketing website that was taken down this week in response to complaints carried the tagline “Once upon a time … There was a retard.”
One scene that has been much discussed on the internet is the one in which Robert Downey Jr.’s character advises Stiller’s character to “Never go full retard.”
The term “retard” has been characterized by disability rights advocates as hate speech that heaps insult and possible harm on a group that has a long history of being stigmatized and vulnerable. They compare it with racial, ethnic and sexual epithets and stereotypes that have historically been used by majority groups to target and humiliate minority groups.
Studio executives have said the film is a comic satire intended to josh actors and the entertainment industry, not people with disabilities. They say the film plays broadly for laughs, offers equal offense to all groups, and is intended only as entertainment without a deeper subtext.
Stiller’s performance as Simple Jack is visible in the film from beginning to end, and provides a critical plot point needed to advance the film to its conclusion. The plot involving Simple Jack, and Stiller’s portrayal of the character, occupy close to 30 minutes of screen time. In character, Stiller speaks in a stilted, stuttering, adenoidal fashion, and wears overalls, bad false teeth and a classic institutional bowl haircut.
The film premieres Monday and is scheduled for nationwide release on Wednesday. As of this writing, promised screenings of the film for disability rights advocates have been postponed until Monday, the day the film premieres.
– The Tally (all approximate) —
Number of repetitions of the word “retard” or its variations: At least 16 in the “full retard” scene, not counting the uses of words like “idiot,” “moron,” “moronical,” “imbecile,” “stupid,” “dumb” and “the dumbest M*****F***** that ever lived.” All are used to describe the character of Simple Jack, who is described in an introductory segment as a “mentally impaired farm hand who can talk to animals.”
Number of repetitions of the word “nigger”: Once, said by a black character criticizing a character pretending to be black.
Number of uses of other racial/ethnic/sexual epithets: None observed.
- Mocking references to gay people and fat people;
- One character portrayed as a white man who has darkened his skin to play a black man. A black character criticizes him several times for impersonating a black man.
- Extensive use of vulgar humor and profanity. (For example, number of variations of the word “F***”: Far too many to count accurately. Fart jokes are prominently featured.)
- Many jokes about the shallowness, self-involvement and ignorance of actors and Hollywood executives in general.
– The Scenes –
In a filmed “television report” on Speedman’s portrayal of Simple Jack, Stiller stutters in a stereotypical fashion through lines like “I’ve got a G-G-G-G-G-good brain” and “You M-m-m-m-m make me happy.” The television interviewer (Access Hollywood’s Maria Menounos) responds in a mocking tone, saying, “Can Speedman M-m-m-m-make audiences happy?”
In a conversation with his agent, played by Mathew McConaughey, Stiller’s Speedman talks about his plans to adopt a child. “At least you get to choose yours,” says the agent, looking sadly at a photograph of himself with a slack-faced teenaged boy who appears to have an intellectual disability. “I’m stuck with mine.” (The teenaged boy turns up with his father on an airplane later in the movie, staring vacantly out the window.)
The “full retard” scene between Stiller’s Speedman and Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus is more extensive than the clip distributed on the internet. Among the lines not included in the Internet version:
Stiller: You know, it was an intense experience, you know? I just did the work. I watched a lot of retarded people, spent time with them, observed them, watched all the retarded stuff they did …..
… In a weird way, I had to free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.
(Exchange with Downey Jr.) To be a moron. to be moronical. To be a moron. To be an imbecile. To be the dumbest M**** F***** that ever lived … Stupid ass Jack.
Stiller: By the end of it I was like, wait a minute. I’ve flushed so much out … how am I going to jump start it up again?
Downey: Yeah, you was farting in the bathtub, laughing your ass off …
In a motorized poster in his agent’s office, Simple Jack is seen hitting butterflies with a sledgehammer.
Stiller is made to re-enact Simple Jack to entertain his captors, and dons a coconut wig, improvised overalls and borrowed dentures to act the part. When he doesn’t perform the way they like, they hit him and say “more stupid.”
Stiller (at bedside of dying mother): Good night mama. Now you can have ice cream in heaven. I see you tonight when I go to bed in my head movies. But this head movie makes my eyes rain. (Copious weeping)