Commentary: One group's 'insensitive' movie can be a lesson learned for everyone else

'Tropic Thunder,' 'Love Guru' among recent releases to spark controversy

So you've got a new movie to release. Be advised: Someone, somewhere, is laying in wait, preparing to launch a protest.

In recent months, Hindu groups have protested "The Love Guru" and champions of those with intellectual disabilities have objected to the way "Tropic Thunder" throws around the word "retard." And last week, the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged Warner Bros. to retitle its upcoming film "Towelhead."

As if to demonstrate just how fine-tuned sensitivities have become, writer Mike Scott in Thursday's Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans lambasted Lionsgate for opening "Disaster Movie" on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Even though the omnibus lampoon movie doesn't traffic in hurricane jokes, he called the Friday opening "an utterly insensitive premiere date."

In any event, New Orleans had more to worry about as a real potential disaster, Hurricane Gustav, bore down on the city. And most moviegoers didn't pay much attention to "Disaster Movie" anyway: It opened in seventh place with an estimated four-day figure of $6.9 million.

But while the "Disaster" strife was little more than a squall, movies still play a big role in the public debate. In some respects, it has nothing to do with the eventual size of a particular film's eventual audience; the mere fact that a movie exists that speaks to a particular subject can trigger an argument. And once a group raises the flag of protest, the media is only too happy to rush in to cover "the controversy." If nothing else, it provides broadcasters the opportunity to air a film clip to liven up a newscast.

Many in the media suspect that Hollywood secretly thrills to such controversies, figuring any publicity -- even bad publicity -- can't help but sell some tickets somewhere. For its part, Hollywood, which would prefer to control the messages it crafts to sell its movies, usually would be just as happy if most protests would quietly go away.

The protesters themselves, though, can sometimes emerge with egg on their face.

The Hindu groups, for example, who took offense to the resolutely silly "Love Guru" risked looking as if they had no sense of humor. It didn't help when Deepak Chopra -- a pal of star Mike Myers who makes a cameo appearance in the film -- stood up in its defense, claiming that the comedian "has the most profound understanding of Eastern wisdom, traditions and spirituality. In the end, the movie is about self-esteem and love." Not that it helped Myers' own self-esteem when the disposable comedy ended up grossing just $32 million domestically.

"Tropic" presented a different situation. The making-of-a-movie satire wasn't actually making fun of the developmentally challenged -- unless they happen to be actors themselves. In the scene that trotted out the R-word, Robert Downey Jr.'s intense method actor was actually lecturing Ben Stiller's dimwitted action star on how to go about winning an Oscar by not "going full retard."

Although arguing that the use of the word in the movie wasn't acceptable, California first lady Maria Shriver, writing in the Los Angeles Times, made the most sense when, instead of simply inveighing against the film, she urged parents to talk to their kids about the use of such hurtful words. Instead of controversy for controversy's sake, she urged those in the special needs community to view the occasion as "a teachable moment."

That's also what "Towelhead" could become. The film, based on Alicia Erian's novel about a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl, provides a similar opportunity. The film -- one of the leftover Warner Independent titles that Warners is now releasing -- isn't expected to make much of an impression at the boxoffice when it opens Sept. 12 in limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles.

But the movie, directed by Alan Ball, makes it clear that derogatory anti-Arab remarks aren't cool. It, too, is attempting to educate audiences. "I am pleased Warner Bros. is standing by the title, Erian has said, explaining, "The solution is not to force the artist to alter his or her work, but instead to use the occasion of that work as an entry point for meaningful debate and discussion."
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