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Commentary: Critics of 'Tropic Thunder' are missing the point

  • Story Highlights
  • Miller: Filmmakers must have known "Tropic Thunder" would be controversial
  • Demands made by activist groups are over the top, Miller says
  • The film is a satire aimed at Hollywood, not at disabled people, he says
  • Miller: The R-rating means film will be seen by adults who can understand it
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By Neil Miller
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Neil Miller, executive editor of the film Web site, is an online film critic based in Columbus, Ohio. For another view, read here.

Neil Miller says activists are making outlandish demands of a film that parodies Hollywood.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNN) -- It is hard to imagine that DreamWorks and Paramount, the companies behind "Tropic Thunder," did not foresee some sort of reaction from activist groups.

With a film that attacks on all levels, making jokes at the expense of race, obesity and cognitive disabilities, the executives must have known it wouldn't sail smoothly in and out of theaters.

That said, the reaction we've seen from activist groups in defense of the cognitively disabled has been astounding. The Disability Rights Coalition has gone beyond expressing their disapproval of the film in order to lay out a list of demands.

Among those demands is that director Ben Stiller re-cut the film, modifying it to remove any reference to the word "retard" and any other "disrespectful depictions" from the film before it hits theaters this week. And those appear to be the simplest of their demands.

Everyone has a right to be offended and to speak out against such an offense. The real issue concerning this debacle is whether groups should be drumming up public outrage and making outlandish demands of a Hollywood studio based on a movie, especially one that is clearly a parody of the Hollywood system itself. The answer is no.

While I can personally empathize with groups who feel that some of the content in "Tropic Thunder" is offensive, it's hard to remain on their side when their otherwise reasonable argument turns into an overblown campaign against the insensitivities of the entire entertainment business.

To imply that by not capitulating to group demands, DreamWorks and Paramount are in large part responsible for intolerance toward the cognitively disabled is ludicrous. Real intolerance is bred in homes, where parents fail to provide proper direction for their children, fail to place such things into the context of everyday life and fail to show their children the difference between right and wrong.

On top of this is the issue of the film's R-rating. As often as critics in the entertainment world, myself included, have railed on the unfair practices of the MPAA, it is easy to see that their ratings system does work in some cases. In this case, the R-rating works as a warning: Audiences who see "Tropic Thunder" are in for an experience that is only intended for adults.

Adults should have the ability to process the jokes employed by "Tropic Thunder" within the context of the film and recognize that the joke doesn't target those with disabilities. It satirically takes aim at actors who exploit roles in which they play disabled characters in order to garner acclaim and win awards. Since children might not be able to make that connection or understand that context, the R-rating serves a strong role.

Perhaps the only major mistake by the studio was in placing the "Simple Jack" concept in the marketing campaign. In the film, the joke truly fades into the context of the storyline, but when pulled out of that context, it is left standing on a burning platform that could easily be interpreted as blatant insensitivity. But they have admitted that mistake and rectified it by removing the "Simple Jack" Web site. Share your thoughts on 'Tropic Thunder'

Beyond that, the film itself keeps everything in the context of the joke, something that seems to be lost on activist groups. In fact, if those members of the cognitively disabled community are claiming that this isn't how they would like to be portrayed, perhaps they'll actually find themselves agreeing with the film upon viewing -- a film that mocks actors who choose to exploit portrayals of those with cognitive disabilities.

While groups still have every right to be upset over the use of the word "retard" or any other "disrespectful depictions," it is the nature of their response that should be questioned. Being upset about a movie is one thing, but holding Hollywood responsible for intolerance in America is something altogether different.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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