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The Independent Critic

Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Coogan
Ben Stiller
Ben Stiller, Etan Cohen, Justin Theroux
Rated R
107 Mins.
 "Tropic Thunder" Review 
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Should I be offended by "Tropic Thunder," co-written, directed by and starring funnyman Ben Stiller?

The ARC, an organization formerly known as "Association for RETARDED Citizens," thinks so.

In fact, so does Tim Shriver, head of Special Olympics, even though he hasn't bothered to see the film. Perhaps this is because Stiller didn't bother to cast any of his athletes in the film, as happened in the Special Olympics endorsed "The Ringer?"

There are other advocacy groups, as well, who want me to be offended by "Tropic Thunder." They want me to boycott this outrageously offensive film because of the frequent use of the word "retard." My own church denomination's disability commission has even signed onto the effort.

Now then, at this point, you're either expecting me to go on a righteous rant against "Tropic Thunder" or you're expecting me to call the boycott effort "retarded."

I won't, however, be using the word "retarded" to point out the myriad of ways in which this planned boycott is ill-conceived, misguided and, in fact, harmful to the very population for which it purports to advocate.

I will state very simply ARC is wrong. Mr. Shriver is wrong. The other advocacy groups are wrong and, yes, even my own religious denomination is wrong.

What are we to do next? Call up every traffic reporter in the United States and tell them to stop referring to "disabled vehicles" because it makes it sound like disabled people are in the way?

"Retarded" is undoubtedly a derogatory, old-school term. There simply isn't a way that one can use the word and mean it as a compliment. It is not a word that can be used as merely descriptive...When one says "retarded," one is going beyond describing someone's intellectual challenges. It is, at its best, a statement of ignorance and, at its worst, a harsh judgement and insult.

Pure and simple.

By now, you may be getting ready to write me a scathing letter for supporting the Hollywood machinery in continuing to promote unhealthy stereotypes.

Before you start writing, consider this...

I AM a disabled adult. I have spina bifida. I am a double, below knee amputee. I am hydrocephalic (a brain injury). I am intellectually challenged, though I have learned over the years how to compensate and overcome these challenges.

I am well into my adult years, and hardly a day goes by that I don't hear words that make me cringe like "cripple." Hardly a day goes by that I don't get stared at for my misshapen body, my crooked spine, my absence of feet. Almost every single day, at some point a young child is going to crawl under my wheelchair and try to find my feet.

I've grown accustomed to it. In all honesty, I find humor in it and use it as an opportunity to teach the child about my differences and how not to be scared of them.

Beyond my own disability, I work with children and adults who have developmental disabilities. I respect them, care about them and encourage them to achieve their highest level of independence. They know, much like I know, that no matter how much they achieve there will always be those who see them as "disabled" and "retarded."

Those who have achieved and developed healthy attitudes about themselves are those who have realized that "disabled," "retarded," "crippled," "special" and other words are nothing more than words. They are labels placed on us by people that don't understand.

Boycotting a film with these words is the worst way in the world to assimilate children and adults into society. It simply reinforces the idea that, somehow, we are special and we should be treated as such. While it is certainly understandable to want to see Hollywood turn away from such a derogatory stereotype, those who are boycotting the film are missing the film's very point...These "stereotypes" are what Hollywood has always done, and that's part of why it has become such an outrageous and, at times, vacuous industry.

It is no secret in the film industry that playing tragic characters, disabled characters or devastated characters wins awards. "Tropic Thunder" does an absolutely brilliant job of bringing this to life, most offensively, perhaps, through Ben Stiller as Simple Jack, the fictional character that has caught the wrath of disability advocacy groups.

If the national organization that is primarily designed to advocate for those with intellectual disabilities took years to stop using "retarded" in its name, how can they possibly pick on a satirical Hollywood comedy that is poking fun at these very Hollywood tendencies?

It seems to me that rather than protesting, these two sides should be walking hand in hand.

Of course, all of this is for naught if the film itself is unworthy of all this attention. After all, Stiller's last 2-3 major studio efforts have been rather stinky...even those that topped the box office such as "Night at the Museum."

Stiller, however, has always been at his best when he's able to write and direct his own material. "Tropic Thunder" is no exception.

While "Tropic Thunder" doesn't carry the Apatow name, it is easily this summer's funniest and most consistently laugh out loud comedy.

"Tropic Thunder" centers on a group of Hollywood actors who find themselves filming a Vietnam War movie in the jungle when they encounter heavily armed drug smugglers.

Film becomes reality. Reality becomes film as they fight, in mostly hilarious ways, for their own survival.

As any real film does, "Tropic Thunder" starts off with a series of movie trailers starring the cast of "Tropic Thunder." You have rapper turned actor Alpa Chino's (Brandon T. Jackson) energy drinks, Jeff Portnoy's (Jack Black) lowbrow comedies, Oscar-winning Australian Actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) with his forbidden love story and, of course, the by now widely publicized Tug Speedman's (Ben Stiller) Oscar bait turn as "Simple Jack."

Throw into the mix an almost incompetent director (Steve Coogan) and an obscenely funny studio exec (Tom Cruise) and you have the makings of testosterone driven, Hollywood-centered egofest that skewers everything Hollywood and every stereotype that Hollywood perpetuates.

While the entire ensemble cast gels together perfectly, Downey, Jr. turns in his second stellar performance of the year in a performance that probably has more right to offend than anything Stiller does in the film. Downey, Jr. acts almost the entire film in what is essentially old school "black face," a commitment to method acting that is so authentically rooted that it's impossible to be offended...except, perhaps, for the film's truly black actor, Alpa Chino.

In a bit of a tribute to the massively troubled "Apocalypse Now" film shoot, the shoot for "Tropic Thunder" is equally as troubled and the guys find themselves in mishap after mishap as the film goes on.

While Stiller's three previous films all skewered aspects of Hollywood and/or fame, "Tropic Thunder" is by far the most dead-on, pointed and tightly written of them all. Scripted by Stiller, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, "Tropic Thunder" is a beautiful and twisted blend of action, silly comedy, intelligent satire and witty Hollywood insider references. Stiller attempted such an approach with "Zoolander," particularly, but with "Tropic Thunder" he perfects the approach.

The entire cast is spot on perfect, and the scene that has most offended the disability advocacy groups is, in fact, one of the film's most dissecting of the way Hollywood creates its films and its stars.

It will be interesting to see, however, if a wider audience truly embraces "Tropic Thunder." While Stiller's three other films have been critically praised, only "Zoolander" truly found a wide audience and Stiller's most recent film, "The Heartbreak Kid," was a box-office disappointment.

However, "Tropic Thunder" is easily Stiller's best film in quite some time and yet another testament to Stiller's gifts as a filmmaker. Ignore ARC and don't even mess with Mr. Shriver until he actually sees the fact, screw them, go see it for yourself. You'll be glad you did.

Written by Richard Propes

Copyright 2008
The Independent Critic