Again, this is taken from an earlier blog of mine, but since I saw the movie again last night and actually got in a discussion the other day about the topic, I thought I would share it here. This might just be my favourite blog post of all time…
For as much as I like to think of myself as a smart, educated, and well-versed and spoken guy, I tend to like sophomoric movies where I can just switch off my brain and enjoy some tasteless jokes and forget about the real troubles in life. Fortunately, people like Ben Stiller make these movies. Say what you want about Stiller, but he has crafted a resume making the same kind of films over the last few years. And while they are ultimately juvenile, he does have enough smarts and wherewithal to include some subtleties that border on genius.
Case in point, Tropic Thunder. The movie received a lot of bad press because they use the word “retard” about 14 times. Most of them are said in about a 2-minute sequence, when Robert Downey Jr’s character and Ben Stiller’s character are talking about movie roles featuring “retards.” And I confess, I laughed. Even though I know it is wrong; I laughed. When Downey tells Stiller why he didn’t win the Oscar, because “you never go full retard”, I had the urge to pee myself. And I don’t feel ashamed for laughing. I’m trying to figure out why but I think I have an answer.
They just wanted to make a movie that played on stereotypes that delved into the ugliest part of humanity. A movie about actors playing actors filming a Vietnam movie that goes horribly wrong shouldn’t be taken seriously. A movie where Downey Jr spends most of his time on screen as a black man, talking about “his” people being oppressed, isn’t exactly starting out on the moral high road.
Downey Jr – Took a huge risk with this portrayal.
But it should be laughed at. The scene in question, the diatribe about actors who have played the mentally challenged on screen starts off as a shot at the actors who know that Oscar seems to have a hard-on for these types of roles. Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks will tell you this. Downey’s character argues that even Sean Penn, while brilliant in I am Sam went over the line and played a character too challenged. Apparently, you can’t do that. The whole argument is so nonsensical it is funny.
But maybe I’m just evil and a heathen. Maybe I have no boundaries when it comes to this sort of thing. Maybe somewhere down the line, through all the failed relationships and incidents, I have lost the ability to care and just laugh at everything around me. Or, perhaps, and I’m just throwing it out there, I know the difference between what is said on celluloid and what someone really means? Perhaps, just perhaps, I can separate fiction from reality and am smart enough to make up my own mind and decide whether or not something is truly awful, misguided humor, or done in the context of an already absurd setting. Which this movie is – absurd. It has to be said though that Stiller did well in casting a black actor to counter act the Downey role as the two of them have some great scenes arguing about the plight of “their people”. Some of it is comic genius.
So, I laughed at the use of the word “retard” and I don’t think it makes me a bad person. I might have forgotten to mention that a few years ago now, I volunteered for a few weekends with the Special Olympics. I was in my late 20s and arrogant as arrogant could be. I was in the peak of my amateur soccer career and no one could touch me. I played to win. Anything less than a win on game day was unacceptable. And somehow, I was roped in to volunteering with the Special Olympics. I wasn’t exactly a beacon of human kindness and morality. In short, and I will admit this, I was an asshole. I have no problems saying so. I was. I was shallow, hot-headed, way too high on myself, and didn’t care who I insulted as long as I had the last word. I was the perfect person to keep as far away from these athletes who deserved more respect and admiration than I could possibly give them. Just to give you an example – we were playing a team called Alliance United, founded by members of the Alliance Church and you would be hard pressed to meet a nicer group of guys. I missed a chance early on that I felt I should have put away and I turned around and yelled, “fuck” as loud as I could. Their nearest defender walked over to me and told me “God frowns of those who use profanity.” My response was simple; “I wonder what he’ll do to me when I break your fucking leg?” See, not an angel. But the girl who asked me to go was hot; I thought it would improve my chances, so I went.
I was joined by a couple of the wives of some of the guys on my team and was actually the only person on my team to go. And I didn’t see the girl who invited us there either. I was a little depressed at first; I have no qualms in admitting this. I was hanging out with Krista and Kate, the two wives, who I know very well and would take a bullet for (still would), and a young man of about 13 walked over towards me. He introduced himself as Kevin. He was autistic, had the most genuine smile I have ever seen, and a laugh that would charm Charles Manson. He noticed I was wearing a soccer jacket, and told me he loved to play soccer with his brothers and his friends. Kevin and I got talking and when it was time for both the athletes and coaches to register he held my hand and walked me over to my registration table.
The powers that be decided the best place for me to work was the soccer zone. Made perfect sense to me and the task was pretty simple. I would be working with a seasoned volunteer, Melody, and all the task required was to make sure the athletes formed a line as Melody placed a soccer ball on the ground about 30 feet from the goal. I would stand in goal and give them the appearance that I was trying.
By this time, I had met many parents, other children, friends and relatives of the athletes and it amazed me the courage and commitment they all had. Here was I, a brash kid supposed to be a man, all bravado and lecherous charm, and I was playing wheelchair basketball with paraplegics, holding skipping ropes for 8 year old girls with no arms, and doing my Yogi Bear impression for anyone who would listen. I was put in my place by the genuine love these athletes, no, these wonderful children and adults had for each moment. And it really hit home when Kevin’s friend Daniel was due up to kick his soccer ball. Kevin stood beside him, giving him encouragement and directions, and asked me to come over. I trotted over and joined Melody at his side and showed him how he should kick the ball. He had two prosthetic legs, one from the knee down and one just from the foot, and he was a first time athlete. His mom and dad were watching from the side, dad beaming as his son hopped forward to start his mazy run towards the ball. By this time, I was standing in goal.
Daniel’s leg swung back and as his prosthetic foot buckled beneath him he let fly. As his ass hit the ground his foot had already sent the ball spinning towards the goal. I don’t think he saw me leap over the ball as it crept into the net his smile was so wide. He was too busy looking at his mom and dad, both crying, holding his hands above his head. When Melody told him to look at the net, and he saw the ball sitting behind me, he hopped up, ran towards me with his arms over his head, Kevin right behind, and they both fell on me screaming like they had just won the world cup.
Kevin could actually belt a soccer ball and I didn’t really have to try too hard to avoid getting out of the way of his. Of course, they had to play pile on the goalie again and this time they had to be peeled off me by Melody who told them to keep me in good shape because she didn’t want me to have any excuses when she scored against me. All of the athletes formed a semi circle around the soccer area, most with their parents standing behind them, and Melody took her cautious steps back. I hadn’t decided if I was going to try and save it, if I could, or just let her score, as the kids really did love her. I didn’t have a chance.
Melody hadn’t told me a lot of things during the day that we were partners. She didn’t tell me that the engagement ring she wore was a fake she put on because it kept the slimeballs away. Apparently, some men actually went to these things to try and pick up the volunteers. She also didn’t tell me that she was a soccer player. And probably a better one than I was.
But I’ll always remember that day for Kevin, for Daniel, for little Jessica who told me she loved me and drew 6 pictures for me throughout the day. I’ll also remember it for how it affected and changed my life. How could I possibly justify to myself all the yelling and bitching when something on the soccer field went wrong when I had just witnessed kids, and grown ups, beaming like it was their greatest accomplishment when they managed to kick a soccer ball a foot and a half? I couldn’t could I? And, from then on, I didn’t. I was still arrogant, still a pain in the ass to play against, but I put it all in perspective.
And when I saw Tropic Thunder and laughed when they said “retard”, it didn’t erase all of those memories and put me back to where I once was. It just proved that I know the difference, am comfortable separating the truth from non-conforming humor, and can look in the mirror and wonder if Kevin and Daniel are still back in Edmonton kicking a soccer ball somewhere or wondering about that one guy who did the Yogi Bear impressions. But mostly, it just cemented my knowledge that those who use the word “retard” and mean it, should be looking in the mirror when they say it.