Ben Stiller's new movie "Tropic Thunder," which he wrote, directed, produced and stars in, is supposed to be a send-up of actors who will go to any lengths to advance their careers.
But a coalition of disabilities groups believes the comic actor went too far with the film's repeated use of what they call the r-word, or "retard," when referring to the character Simple Jack, whom Stiller portrays in a subplot.
The coalition of 22 groups, including the Special Olympics, the Arc of the United States and the National Down Syndrome Congress, launched a nationwide boycott of the film -- which opens for wide release Wednesday -- at Monday's premiere in Los Angeles. Stars Stiller, Robert Downey Jr. and Jack Black walked down a red carpet past dozens of protestors and picket signs that read "Ban the movie, ban the word."
"This population remains the defenseless butt of jokes all throughout media," said Special Olympics chairman Timothy Shriver, who has not yet seen the movie. "We think it's time to end."
Chip Sullivan, a spokesman for DreamWorks, a unit of Paramount that released the film, defended the R-rated comedy in a statement on Sunday, saying that it "satirizes Hollywood and its excesses, and makes its point by featuring inappropriate and over-the top characters in ridiculous situations."
He added, "The film is in no way meant to disparage or harm the image of individuals with disabilities."
"I think it's open to interpretation and that's the great thing," Robert Downey Jr., who stars in the film, told APTN at the Monday night premiere. "You know, if I want to protest something because it offends me that's my right as an American, and it's also any artist's right to say and do whatever they wanna do."
The Simple Jack character is part of a film within a film. Stiller's character Speedman, an aging action movie star, chases after an Oscar by portraying a dim farmhand, complete with bowl haircut and bucked teeth, who stutters and talks to farm animals.
Although the studio has held 250 screenings of the film since April, objections to Simple Jack first surfaced about a week ago on writer Patricia Bauer's blog about disability issues. Bauer posted a studio promotional image that highlighted Simple Jack and carried the slogan "Once Upon a Time There Was a Retard," and invited readers to comment.
As soon as the studio got wind of concerns being raised, it ditched Simple Jack marketing materials and a mock promotional Web site called simplejackmovie.com.
Last Wednesday, Shriver and representatives of other disability advocacy groups met in person and by phone with Stacey Snider, DreamWorks chief executive, and presented a list of demands, including asking filmmakers to cut any "retard" references or jokes. DreamWorks left the film as is.
In his statement, Sullivan said, "we have had productive discussions with representatives of disability advocacy organizations, and look forward to working with them closely in the future. However, no changes or cuts to the film will be made."
The studio arranged screenings around the country for disability advocates yesterday and last Friday. "I came out of it feeling like I had been assaulted," said David Tolleson, executive director of the Down syndrome group, who saw it last week. "I counted 16 uses of retard, not counting imbecile, moron and idiot."