Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Tropic Thunder


This is far from a perfect comedy, but these days you take what you can get. Every time I thought it was going to totally lose it, they came up with something funny again and kept me watching. Some of the best stuff was right at the beginning—a good idea, to lead strongly and get me rooting for the picture. All three idiot actors in the “jungle war movie” scenario are introduced by trailers from their movies. They’re all funny, but the best is Jack Black, whose entire career seems to be founded on fart jokes. We see 6 or 7 Jack Black’s in fat suits—and who would have thought he’d ever need a fat suit?—sitting around the family dinner table and just fartin’ up a storm. Can anybody say Eddie Murphy? This is so ingenious. The director (Ben Stiller) can have it both ways. It’s clearly a satire on the depths of low-brow humor Hollywood has descended to … and yet you get to do a lot of fart jokes, too!

The main thing you have to address in this movie is the protests that developed around “intellectual disability,” formerly known as mental retardation. Okay, that’s cool, I’ve been through a lot of linguistic changes in my life—crippled becoming handicapped and then disabled; the people formerly known as Negroes becoming black, then Afro-American, then persons of color, then African-American—and I’m willing to call people what they want to be called (except Asian; where do the eastern Oriental races get the right to claim all of Asia as their own, as if Arabs, Russians, Persians, Indians, Afghans, etc. don’t even exist?). If people want to be called intellectually disabled to gain a little dignity, that’s fine with me. Of course, most of them would not understand either word; it’s the families who hate the words retarded and, especially, retard … as well they should.

But now they’re referring to it as “the R-word,” and friends, this is going too far. As a writer and a lover of language, I refuse to accept this. It all began with the little euphemism “the F-word.” It was sort of cute. Then we had “the N-word,” and I started to get pissed off. With the introduction of this new one, I absolutely refuse to use any of them.

The F-word is Fuck. Fuck! Can I be any clearer?

The N-word is nigger. Ugly word, but we can’t erase it from history, or from the future.

The R-word is retard (or retarded, I’m not clear).

What’s next? How about T-word for tobacco? Who needs to name that ugly stuff? And the A-word for alcohol, the D-word for drugs? But we’d better be careful and conserve letters, we only have 26 of them and we’ve already used 3. If we started using the N-word for narcotics it could lead to confusion. Are we referring to racism or addiction … sorry, I meant the A-word.

I discovered there is even a term for this process of what I’d call the devitalization of language: the euphemism treadmill. Here’s how it goes for disability:

lame → crippled → handicapped → disabled → physically challenged → differently abled

A very neat progression, from objectionable through reasonable to pure horseshit. “Abled?” They’re trying to pretend there’s no difference between the disabled and the able-bodied (a term the radicals in the disability rights movement hate), and that’s horseshit. In my observations, going back to the days of Selma, Alabama, all liberation movements go through these stages. Maybe all movements of any kind. Feminism (which I heartily support, until it gets goofy) is another example. Remember “wimmin?” How about “herstory?”

One of our more ferocious language guardians, George Carlin, had a riff on what was first recognized as “shell shock” in World War I:

Shell shock (World War I) → battle fatigue (World War II)→ Operational exhaustion (Korean War) → Post-traumatic stress disorder (Vietnam War)

They’re all the same thing! Okay? Just as lame or blind or deaf is the same thing as differently abled, visually impaired, or auditorially challenged. I’m not saying we should use these old terms (though I don’t know what’s wrong with blind and deaf), but we should be able to know when to say “Enough! Enough of this escalating linguistic bullshit!”

Do I advocate using these words in public, in conversation? Of course not. They are offensive, all of them (though I think a case can be made that fuck has become a vital part of our language, and really has little capacity to shock, any more than darn). But in a book? In a movie? Part of the protest has been against the very use of the word, as if these people expected three assholes out in the jungle to say “the R-word.” (And part of my point is that, if a character in a movie says “nigger,” you know he is either a racist asshole or one African-American addressing another African-American, and if he uses the word “retard,” you know he is an insensitive, stupid asshole.)

That’s not the end of the protest, of course. The real blaze of these advocates’ anger is directed at what they perceive (those who have seen the movie, and a surprising number have not) as the demeaning portrayal of the ret– … I mean, the intellectually disabled in movies. The deal is, Ben Stiller, in a bid for an Oscar, had made a movie called Simple Jack. We see a few scenes from it, and it really would qualify as what someone in this movie calls “the worst movie ever made.” It is so stunningly, agonizingly awful that you can only laugh, hollowly. Because you’ve seen movies almost this bad! There’s a scene where Stiller is discussing Simple Jack with Robert Downey, Jr., and they’re running through a list of movies about mentally challenged people. And that’s the point, isn’t it? The Academy loves movies about the disabled. Sean Penn got nominated for I Am Sam (a film I have avoided, based on the awful trailer). Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for Sling Blade. Geoffrey Rush won for Shine (about a man who wasn’t intellectually challenged, but was sure fucked up). Tom Hanks won for the mildly challenged Forrest Gump. Blind Al Pacino won for Scent of a Woman. Daniel Day-Lewis won for My Left Foot, beating out paraplegic Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. And of course there was autistic Dustin Hoffman winning in Rain Man, Peter Sellers’ nomination in Being There, Jon Voight’s win for Coming Home … need I say more? If you wanted a formula for attracting Academy attention, you could do worse than playing Simple Jack. And that, friends and neighbors, was the point of this whole “retard” thing, the point the protesters either didn’t get or just didn’t care about. The movie was lampooning the lengths to which actors and scriptwriters and studios and directors will go to court the Academy voters. The writer and the director were on your side, damn it! They were appalled by some of the exploitation they see.

But the sad fact is that true believers, revolutionaries, the indignant, those with one cause that dominates their lives, will never understand satire. They wanted … they demanded, that Stiller and the studio re-edit the movie, removing all references to the intellectually befuddled. Insanity! Political correctness run amok! And it just keeps on running amok, so I must speak out against it now and then.

Which I’ve just done, for all the good it will do.