The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Going "Full-Jew" in "Tropic Thunder?"

August 15, 2008 |  4:10 pm

Thunderpic_2 My colleague John Horn has a good story in our paper today about how the nation's film critics have come to the defense of "Tropic Thunder," Ben Stiller's new Hollywood satire, which has been under attack from various advocacy groups of its frequent use of the word "retard." Tim Shriver, head of the Special Olympics, has advocated a boycott of the picture. Stiller, among others, has said the film's mocking use of the word is poking fun at self-important actors, not the mentally disabled.

I have no dog in this fight. I wasn't awestruck by the satire in "Tropic Thunder," but nor was I offended. In general, satire should be defended, whether it provokes the ire of conservatives, liberals or any other thin-skinned interest groups. But it is important, if you're going to defend satire, to be sure that you're willing to defend it all the way. If you're a liberal, it's easy to stick up for most of today's satirists, because most satirists are, by nature, liberal and contrarian, so it's not your ox being gored.

What would happen, for example, if Ben Stiller were making fun of Jews instead of the disabled? Just as an exercise in the art of tolerance, let's change just one word in a couple of the excerpts that John Horn ran from the current "Tropic Thunder" reviews. Here goes:

1) "'Tropic Thunder' is drawing fire from special interest groups for its frequent use of the word 'Jew,' but discerning audiences will know where the humor is targeted. And they'll be laughing too hard to take offense." Christian Toto,

2) Comedy needs the right to be offensive, and Stiller at least has the courage of his convictions. When he uses the word 'Jew,' it's deliberate, not casual." Stepahanie Zacharek,

Do you feel differently about the unbridled freedom of satire now? Or not? It's intriguing to note that "Thunder" has a white actor in black face playing an African-American, yet no one has really made a fuss about that. In fact, only one critic that I read -- the New York Times' Manohla Dargis -- got around to criticizing the film for insulting Jews, describing Tom Cruise's portrayal of a noxious studio executive as a "grotesque" stereotype, "heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish" from "his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar-sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest."

I raise these questions not to criticize the movie, but to remind us -- you as a moviegoer as well as me as a writer -- that there's always a thin line between inspiration and offensiveness. If you're a satirist, it's one thing to cross that line, another thing not to bother giving thought about whether you've made it clear enough whom you are really making fun of.

The model of a great satire, if you've never seen it, is Alexander Payne's debut film, "Citizen Ruth," which manages to make fun of everyone across the political spectrum. It stars Laura Dern as a drug-sniffing loser who finds herself in the middle of a hilarious tug of war between prissy pro-lifers and sanctimonious pro-choicers after she gets pregnant and is ordered by a judge to have an abortion. Everyone gets their ox gored, but Payne manages to be caustic without being cruel. It's an art that's not as easy as it looks.

Photo of Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black in "Tropic Thunder" by Merie Weismiller Wallace/DreamWorks.