Friday, August 29, 2008

Movie Review: Tropic Thunder

Update: Legitimate concerns have been raised about how the mentally challenged are portrayed in Tropic Thunder. I don't think Ben Stiller is making fun of those who are challenged per se; rather he is making fun of the fact that the movie industry often rewards actors and actresses who take on those roles to gain "gravitas" within the industry. In fact, there is a scene between Tugg Speedman and Kirk Lazarus where Kirk explains why actors such as Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), and Sean Penn (I Am Sam) did or didn't get nominated for the Oscar for these roles. During this discussion, Kirk utters the line, "They didn't go full retard."

Unfortunately, someone in Marketing thought "Don't Go Full Retard" would be a terrific line to license for t-shirts, etc. And it's now showing up at local malls. And, yeah, I can understand why that line would appeal to a certain segment of the population, especially young adult males who are not noted for their subtlety and empathy.

Apparently Ben Stiller is among them.

Mr. Stiller could have made his point about the movie industry honoring only those actors who make "serious" movies, about "issues" using a different example. In fact, he missed a great opportunity since Jon Voight, who made his film debut in Midnight Cowboy dealing with male prostitutes, makes a cameo in Tropic Thunder. He could have used gays or films where physically beautiful actors or actresses get into the gutter. Mr. Stiller would have upset a different population, but it would have been a population that could fight back on their own. That would have been the braver choice.

Also, Mr. Stiller mocks current celebrities adopting children from the Third World, fulfilling a need within themselves rather than any need of the child. Because Tropic Thunder is a spoof, this all goes horribly wrong and Tugg Speedman seems to be throwing a child off a bridge who, at the time, was stabbing Tugg in the back. To me and DD#2, it was obvious that he threw a dummy--but still.

Again, parts of this movie are funny. Again, I would not rate this movie a "must see." But there will be teens and young adults who see this movie and the above are issues that should be discussed.

Hubs saw Tropic Thunder first and then dragged me to theater to see it. DD#2, who is now 15, came along, too. Commercial reviews of the movie were mixed. But Hubs was adamant that I'd enjoy it, so we went.

Looking back, I didn't realize the movie was rated "R." Had I paid attention, I might have been more cautious about bringing DD#2 along.

The movie opens with a "commercial" for an energy drink and a series of "trailers" that are so seamless done I didn't realize the movie had started. My first clue was that they were really over-the-top. My second clue was one of the trailers featured Ben Stiller, only he wasn't called Ben Stiller.

Then comes a voiceover, reading the opening lines on the screen about a mission to Vietnam. Ten men went in, four came out, two wrote a book, only one was a bestseller and this is a movie about that bestseller. Jump to the movie s The director, Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) is shooting key scene and the leading actor, Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) can't bring the right emotion to the fore because the other actor in the scene, Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is spitting on him. Cockburn has a meltdown, which causes the special effects director to blow up the jungle.

The movie is two months behind schedule and it's only the second day of shooting.

After Cockburn is royally chewed out by the studio head, the author of the book the movie is based on, Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte), suggests that they go for more realism by setting up cameras in the jungle, dropping the actors off, and shooting the film as they make their way back to the helicopter. Cockburn thinks this is a wonderful idea.

At the dropoff, he collects the actors' cellphones, hands Speedman the outline of the script and a map, tells them he has the only radio that can summon the chopper, and steps on an old French landmine, blowing himself up. The actors are appalled--except for Speedman, who thinks this is a stunt. But he needs to make this movie, so off the band goes.

And a what a band it is. Tugg Speedman is the star of a disaster movie franchise who also played the lead character in Simple Jack, who is retarded--a performance ignored by the Academy. Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is noted for playing multiple characters in a series of comedy movies where the main jokes--the only jokes--revolve around farts. He's also a drug addict. There is a young black rapper, Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) whose only acting experience is in music videos and advertisements for an energy drink called "Body Sweat." He resents that Lazarus is playing a black man when he is, in fact, white and an Aussie. Lazarus is a "serious" actor and never drops out of character, even when the cameras are not rolling. Problem is, his character is a stereotype. Finally, there is Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) who is the straight guy. He's read the book, the script, the in-flight magazine. He's also been in the Army and is the only one who can read a map.

They are not alone, however. They have been dropped in the midst of territory controlled by the Golden Dragons, a drug cartel who think the band of actors are D.E.A. agents.

What happens next is pretty predictable. The band splits up, with Speedman insisting that this is a movie set and the helicopter is one way and the rest of the crew going the other. Speedman is captured and taken to the headquarters of the drug cartel. The rest of the group finds him by accident.

Meanwhile, the special effects guy and Tayback go looking for the Cockburn and the band, finding only the site of the explosion and the walkie-talkie.

At the drug cartel HQ, Speedman is recognized as the lead in Simple Jack. Turns out it's the cartel's favorite movie and they want him to reprise his role. In turn, Speedman re-evaluates his life and decides to "adopt" a cute little toddler living at the compound.

Has the movie taken a turn toward the Serious and Introspective?

C'mon! This is Ben Stiller!

Tropic Thunder is rude and crude. The "F-word" is used liberally. Ben Stiller uses a sledge hammer to make his point about race, sex, drugs, and Hollywood.

I found myself laughing out loud. Several times.

The actors look like they were having fun on the set (I'd love to see the outtakes--this was filmed in Kau'i). Lots of cameos by different actors who played off their public personas. Nothing is sacred; no one is safe.

Did Tropic Thunder deserve an R rating? Yes, due to language, over-the-top violence, and portrayals of drug use (although those were not sympathetic--Jeff Portnoy is shown as being out-of-control). Although there are no scenes of explicit sex, there is much discussion about it, usually at the "locker room" level.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though I wouldn't rank it as a "must see." DD#2 enjoyed it as well, although I'm glad she's not any younger.

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party


Anonymous said...

What 'Tropic Thunder' Thinks Is Funny

By Timothy Shriver

Monday, August 11, 2008; Page A15

I've been told to keep my sense of humor about the film "Tropic Thunder," which opens this week. Despite my requests, I have not been given the chance to see the movie. But I've seen previews, read about it and read excerpts of the script. By all accounts, it is an unchecked assault on the humanity of people with intellectual disabilities -- an affront to dignity, hope and respect.

Consider this exchange:

Ben Stiller's character: "There were times when I was doing Jack when I actually felt retarded. Like really retarded."

Robert Downey Jr.'s character: "Oh yeah. Damn."

Stiller: "In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb."

Downey: "To be a moron."

Stiller: "Yeah."

At another point, about acting like a person with intellectual disabilities, they say:

Stiller: "It's what we do, right?"

Downey: "Everybody knows you never do a full retard."

Stiller: "What do you mean?"

Downey: "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."

I worked with the Farrelly brothers on a film on this topic. I know about edgy comedy. I'm also told that movies are equal-opportunity offenders.

So here's an equal-opportunity response to the equal-opportunity offenders:

People with intellectual disabilities are routinely abused, neglected, insulted, institutionalized and even killed around the world. Their parents are told to give up, that their children are worthless. Schools turn them away. Doctors refuse to treat them. Employers won't hire them. None of this is funny.

For centuries, they have been the exception to the most basic spiritual principle: that we are each equal in spirit, capable of reflecting the goodness of the divine, carriers of love. But not people with intellectual disabilities. What's a word commonly applied to them? Hopeless.

Let's consider where we are in 2008. Our politics are about overcoming division, our social movements are about ending intolerance, our great philanthropists promote ending poverty and disease among the world's poor. Are people with intellectual disabilities included in the mainstream of these movements? For the most part, no.

Why? Because they're different. Their joy doesn't fit on magazine covers. Their spirituality doesn't come in self-help television. Their kind of wealth doesn't command political attention. (The best of the spirit never does.)

Sadly, they're such an easy target that many people don't realize whom they are making fun of when they use the word "retard." Most people just think it's funny. "Stupid, idiot, moron, retard." Ha, ha, ha.

I know: I could be too sensitive. But I was taught that mean isn't funny. And I've been to institutions where people with intellectual disabilities are tied to beds or lie on concrete floors, forgotten. I've heard doctors say they won't treat them. I know Gallup found that more than 60 percent of Americans don't want a person with an intellectual disability at their child's school.

I've talked to people with intellectual disabilities who cry over being insulted on a bus. I've received too many e-mails from people who are devastated not by their child's disability but by the terror of being laughed at, excluded and economically devastated.

It wasn't funny when Hollywood humiliated African Americans for a generation. It's never funny when good and decent human beings are humiliated. In fact, it is dangerous and disgusting.

This film is all that and more. DreamWorks went so far as to create a mini-version of Simple Jack and posted it online. The studio has since pulled it down, realizing it had gone too far, even in an age of edgy, R-rated comedies.

So, enough. Stop the hurtful jokes. Talk to your children about language that is bullying and mean. Ask your friends, your educators, your religious leaders to help us to end the stubborn myth that people with intellectual disabilities are hopeless. Ask Hollywood to get on the right side of dignity.

I hope others will join me in shutting this movie out of our lives and our pocketbooks. We don't live in times when labeling and humiliating others is funny. And we should send that message far and wide.

The writer is chairman of Special Olympics and a columnist for's On Faith discussion site.

Leticia said...

I agree with this comment. As Catholics, we must not patronize entertainment where certain vulnerable people are mocked for the juvenile tastes of some.
We are better than that.
And we certainly don't take our children, which implies that we approve of such mockery.
Shame on you!

Leticia said...

Thanks for the update, March Hare, it is greatly appreciated.
Here is another update on the issue:
As a result of The Arc's work, a trailer is being added to the DVD movie versions of Tropic Thunder. The same PSA is going to be aired in Walmart stores nationwide. The Arc is also approaching movie theaters and video store chains about it as well. The PSA can be viewed at

March Hare said...


Thanks for the link to the PSA. I thought it was very effective and I hope movie theaters will air it.