Tropic Thunder

Posted on November 18, 2008 at 6:07 pm

With constant coverage of every baby bump and trip to rehab, we all feel like show business insiders these days. And co-writer/director/star Ben Stiller makes the most of that with this pointed but ultimately sweet take on Hollywood excess.

The characters are brilliantly introduced via a stream of what at first appear to be pre-feature shorts, until we realize that they are hilarious and only slightly exaggerated parodies of a rap star’s soda commercial and trailers for movies featuring a fading action star (“Global Meltdown Part VI: Here we go again. Again.”), a tubby comic who plays all the parts in low comedies — very low (“The Fatties: Fart 2”) and wants to do drama but is battling a substance abuse problem, and a Serious Actor from Australia who throws himself completely into every role (a trailer for “Satan’s Alley” about the forbidden love of a pair of friars) and has had a controversial medical procedure to darken his skin to play an African-American. They are Alpa Chino (say it aloud) (Brandon T. Jackson), Tugg Speedman (Stiller), Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), and Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.). And they are joined by newcomer Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) in a huge career-building Viet Nam War epic, based on the true story of “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte) and directed by first-timer Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan).

Everything, of course, goes very, very wrong. When they’re a month behind after five days of shooting and the studio executive (a very funny performance by a major star I won’t reveal) is very colorfully threatening to do many very bad and painful things, Cockburn decides to go commando, so to speak, and take the actors out into the jungle like it was “The Blair Witch Project.” And that is when things really go wrong and the actors get mixed up in some real fighting they think is part of the movie.

Stiller is great at nailing the way that the actors and the people back in Hollywood have such a permeable sense of reality that they buy into whatever is happening at the moment. That may be the way to get an Oscar, but it makes it difficult to deal with actual reality when it occurs. The overlay of these pampered stars (Speedman’s agent is frantic about the failure to provide his client with TIVO) playing tough guys (and they are not the only ones pretending to be tough) is very funny and the inside humor (“I stay in character until the DVD commentary”) is choice. A movie about a fake movie has the truest laughs of the summer.

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Action/Adventure Comedy War

Are Some Words Forbidden No Matter What?

Posted on September 6, 2008 at 8:00 am

Should some words be banned entirely? In a debate reminiscent of the battles over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a coalition of disability rights groups called for a boycott of Tropic Thunder over the use of the term “retard.” The Washington Post published an opinion piece criticizing “Tropic Thunder,” written by the mother of a developmentally disabled child that began with an anecdote about a cruel passer-by who used that term to insult her child.
She failed to understand that the movie used the term exactly the way she did — to demonstrate that the speaker is a misguided and ignorant person.
In discussing this issue on BDK’s radio show, I mentioned that when I reviewed First Sunday, the newspaper that printed the review used N**** instead of spelling out the first word in the name of Ice Cube’s rap group. But that story did not make it on the air. The radio station did not broadcast the word, even though the word was not being used as an epithet but a word chosen by a group of men about themselves as a way of removing the pejorative and diminishing aspects of the term and giving it power instead. I might not agree with that use of the word but I respect the right of people to determine for themselves what they want to be called and to determine whether they want anyone who is not a part of the group to use it.
And I oppose any effort to ban any word. It makes it impossible to have a conversation about the meaning of the word and it gives the word too much power.
Oh, and the very first protests of “Huckleberry Finn,” which began as soon as the book was published, also focused on language that was considered inappropriate and shocking. The objections were not to the n-word but to the use of terms like “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” And yet, like the music of NWA, it is the language Huck and Twain use that is central to the appeal and authenticity of the works.
towelhead1.jpgNow there is a protest over the title of a new film called, as was the book it was based on, “Towelhead.” This is one of several cruel and insulting terms that the main character, the daughter of an American mother and a Lebanese father, is called by racists. The author of the book, Alicia Erian, and the director of the movie, Alan Ball (of “Six Feet Under” and “American Beauty”) have issued very thoughtful and compelling statements about the title and the term that are well worth reading, supported by the studio and by a group of scholars. Here are the statements in full:


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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Movie Mom on the BDK radio show

Posted on September 2, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Kevin McCarthy, aka BDK, interviewed me on this radio program this weekend and we talked about a wide range of topics from Metallica to whether it is ever appropriate to use the n-word to Clint Eastwood as actor and director. It was a lot of fun and I look forward to returning to talk to him again in two weeks.

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Media Appearances

Who Should Be Offended by ‘Tropic Thunder?’

Posted on August 16, 2008 at 4:03 pm

A coalition of disability group has called for a boycott of the R-rated satire Tropic Thunder. They are asking people not to see the movie because they say ittropic-thunder-stiller-rdj-.jpg
demeans, insults, and harms individuals with intellectual disabilities by using the “R- word.” Furthermore, it perpetuates derogatory images and stereotypes of individuals with intellectual disabilities including mocking their physical appearance and speech, supports the continuation of inappropriate myths and misperceptions, and legitimizes painful discrimination, exclusion, and bullying.
Special Olympics Chair Timothy Shriver said
Some may think we ought to lighten up and not get so worked up because this is, after all, just a film. But films become part of pop culture and character lines are repeated in other settings time and time again. It’s clear to me that lines from this particular film will provide hurtful ammunition outside the movie theatre. While I realize that the film’s creators call this a parody and they never intended to hurt anyone, it doesn’t mean those words won’t.
I respect their concerns for the dignity of the disabled, but they are simply wrong and their comments reflect such a fundamental misunderstanding of the film that it is impossible to believe that anyone connected with these statements actually saw it. I side with the other movie critics who have said that this film is not disrespectful or inappropriate in the treatment of disabled people.
The movie in no way makes fun of developmentally disabled people. On the contrary. It makes fun of pretentious actors who think they can win awards by portraying developmentally disabled people.


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Commentary Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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