What’s wrong with being an equal opportunity offender within the confines of comedy? If you asked me before I saw Tropic Thunder last night I might have answered, “Not much.”
Not the case anymore.
I went to see the much-anticipated Ben Stiller flick after a few months of heightened anticipation. I had read many enticing reviews, including David Ansen’s glowing accolades of Ben Stiller’s comedic rise to genius from his days on the Ben Stiller Show to his fall in The Heartbreak Kid to his present-day redemption.
I like Ben Stiller most of the time. I used to get annoyed with his shtick but ever since Zoolander (which people I either love or hate), I’ve been singing a different tune. It was a silly commentary on the fashion world, models, and the media that exploits every facet of pop culture. It was so over-the-top, it was hard to offend. Unless you’re a self-obsessed, dumb model, that is…Or just an incredibly dim-witted, kind-hearted model like Stiller’s Derek Zoolander.
So given Stiller’s penchant for poking fun at various groups in his work (and most notably “slow” people) and his 2-D labels, it’s not surprising that the President of the AAPD (Association of American People with Disabilities) came out denouncing Stiller’s portrayal of a character playing the part of mentally retarded individual, even going so far as to call out the film as “tasteless” and “offensive from start to finish.”
I know what he meant because I, too, cringed every time I saw Stiller stutter in his “Simple Jack” character, wondering how this brand of cruel humor managed to see its way through Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks editing suite.
And I felt doubly ashamed and irate with Tom Cruise’s cameo as a money-grubbing, fat, and vulgar Hollywood Executive named Len Grossman.
Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of a white man playing a black man was meant to be funny and self-deprecating because it was poking fun at someone who was pretending to be someone he wasn’t. It didn’t involve colors so much as one actor’s self-absorption and what he put himself through to be an artiste. The make-up and phony accent were all part of the gimick.
The joke ended there.
But with Cruise’s Jewish character and Stiller’s mentally disabled character there was no foil. There were stereotypes that were magnified and blown up at the expense of these groups. The joke was entirely on the people that comprise these groups.
I’ve never been fond of the mantra that it’s ok to insult and joke about a group if you’re a member. We all have the responsibility to uphold a degree of ethics and social responsibility in our work and our daily conduct. Besides, the majority of people attending such a mainstream flick aren’t necessarily Jewish nor Special Needs so you’re depicting these groups in an unfavorable light to a broader audience for the sake of what? To fuel the fire of discrimination and spread hate?
It’s quite possible I have a giant rod up my butt and just don’t “get it” but “it” seems like such infantile and low-brow humor that I’m not sure I ever want to get it. It makes me long for comic brilliance of Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor – men who valued a level of sophistication in their cultural commentaries and knew that the best kind of laugh sometimes came with the price of of a tear in that it held a mirror to our own ignorance and short-comings. And at the end of the day we were better people for having listened to them and chuckled at our own expense – not someone else’s.