When I saw the first half of the trailer for Tropic Thunder, I was all, “Man! Ben Stiller and Jack Black and Robert Downey, Jr. in the same movie?! Awesome!” And then I realized the part Robert Downey, Jr. was playing. I thought, foolishly, “Oh, man. That’s either gonna go really well or TERRIBLY.” (How foolishly was I thinking? I didn’t recognize Downey’s character’s “controversial medical procedure” as blackface until other people pointed it out). White privilege ahoy!)
The more I learned about Tropic Thunder, the simpler and more offensive its jokes sounded. But I sympathized with the central idea of those jokes: to poke fun at Hollywood’s own self-importance.
The problem, though, is that an idea isn’t funny on its own. It’s the execution of an idea that makes a joke funny. And the joke execution in Tropic Thunder doesn’t work.
In the film, Stiller’s character is an actor who played a man with an intellectual disability in a film called Simple Jack. And he’s all huffy because nobody gave him an Oscar for it.
Now, I’m no fan of Hollywood’s tendency to cast non-disabled actors as characters with disabilities, especially when there are plenty of disabled actors who could do the job. A lot of movies about disabled people–including “sensitive” ones–bother me. I think satire about disability (and other) stereotypes in Hollywood could be wonderfully subversive. But Tropic Thunder’s satire is just sloppy:
Downey: Everybody knows you never do a full retard.
Stiller: What do you mean?
Downey: Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rainman, 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 he won a ping-pong competition? That ain’t retarded.
You went full retard, man. Never go full retard.
The joke is that Hollywood uses disability for praise, awards, and box office success–I get that. But the joke itself takes the easy way out. As nojojojo says about good satire:
Consider the power differential, and direction. If your satire is directed from an oppressed group towards a group in power, you might have a satire on your hands. If your satire contains a subversive attack on the existing, status-quo power structure, you might have a satire on your hands. If the subject of your satire would find your comments funny, and not merely (yet another) a slap in the face, you might have a satire on your hands.
Ben Stiller and company may think they’re subverting power–they may even be trying to subvert power and failing. But Tropic Thunder’s jokes are still centered around the people in power. ”Let’s exaggerate the privileged so they look like fools!” is risky, because people with privilege aren’t aware of their own privilege, so they really don’t see how foolish exaggerated versions of themselves are.
(For some GOOD disability-related satire, see, the Disability Rights Commission’s short film “Talk” on their YouTube Channel).