Rudeness of ‘Tropic Thunder' may cause its own storm

Ben Stiller slurps gore from a human head. Robert Downey Jr. wears blackface throughout. Both milk an extended gag about Hollywood's weakness for what they impolitely call retards.

And the film was not cheap.

“Tropic Thunder,” an R-rated movie-industry spoof set to open Wednesday, clearly has hit potential. Directed by Stiller, it has an ensemble cast that also includes Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Steve Coogan and Nick Nolte, not to mention Tom Cruise in a raucous cameo as a vulgar studio chief.

Of “Tropic Thunder,” Stacey Snider, chief executive of the DreamWorks unit, said: “I'm proud of the movie. It is hysterically funny. I do think it's got its heart in the right place.”

Snider acknowledged the risks inherent in the film. It is the first from DreamWorks, she said, to use a so-called red band trailer, which attempts to limit access to online viewers 17 or older. (Visitors to www.tropicthunder.com can view it only after clicking on “Restricted” and entering name, ZIP code and birth date.)

But the film's humor, she said, comes at the expense of its own heroes, a corps of knucklehead actors, rather than of handicapped people or anyone else. “The star-studdedness of it, and the absolute playability of it, trumps it all,” Snider said.

“Tropic Thunder” has about as much feminine presence as “Platoon.” That combat classic, Stiller recently told the Los Angeles Daily News, helped inspire him to make a satire when its director, Oliver Stone, dismissed him at a casting meeting for the movie with the words “You're cute.”

“Tropic Thunder” follows actors who get tangled up in real warfare with a paramilitary drug gang while working out their anxieties and insecurities on a “Platoon”-like movie shoot. Along the way, they dabble in some humor that is exceptionally rude.

Whether Stiller's movie-within-a-movie subplot – about his character's would-be Oscar turn as the developmentally handicapped title character of “Simple Jack” – incites a backlash remains to be seen. A mock promotional Web site for “Simple Jack,” www.simplejackmovie.com – which features Stiller cavorting as a bucktoothed, kindhearted dolt – has drawn a wary response from some.

The Web site www.patriciaebauer.com, which compiles news and commentary related to disability issues, highlighted a “Simple Jack” promotional image that carries the slogan “Once Upon a Time There Was a Retard.” In an accompanying post, Patricia E. Bauer, the veteran journalist who runs the site, invited debate over the film's approach, and especially its use of what many call “the R-word.”

Stiller suggested that the movie would speak for itself.

“It's hard for me to tell people how to react,” he said. “The whole point of the movie is about actors, and the length actors will go to advance their careers.”