For those not following The Dilemma kerfluffle, it goes something like this: Hacktastic director and unimaginative boor Ron Howard’s new movie, The Dilemma, featured a joke in the trailer that was an “it’s gay” joke. You remember those, they’re the jokes that some 10-year-old boys find clever, the ones who end up needing help to fight their later DUI cases. Although one could argue that it was not among the most offensive elements of the trailer, which includes Kevin James and Winona Ryder being married and Vince Vaughn continuing to look like somebody microwaving the Pillsbury Doughboy, it’s still the equivalent of telling a joke that ends “Electric cars are for N-words.” The studio pulled the trailer, replacing it with one slightly less vile, but Howard gets to decide if it remains in the movie. In the interest of being fair, here’s his response to Patrick Goldstein of The LA Times…Goldstein had asked several great questions about the inclusion of this lame, tired, offensive joke at the expense of vulnerable people, some of whom have been killing themselves because others have been joking at them.
Patrick, I’ve been reading your posts about The Dilemma with a lot of interest. In the couple of weeks since you started covering the debate over our joke, it seems a larger conversation made up of many questions about all sorts of freedoms of expression has broken out: When’s it okay to walk off of a talk show if you disagree with the guest? Who is appropriate to cast in a movie and who gets to decide that? Should news people be held to a different standard in what they say? How risqué can a photo shoot be for a men’s magazine promoting an all-audience show? What role does comedy play in both pointing out differences and unifying us through laughter? They’re all good questions and I’m certainly not the person who has definitive answers to all of them. The debate about what is appropriate in films and advertising has been going on since well before I started in the business — which is to say a very long time — and will never have a conclusion. But I do have some answers to the five questions you put forth in your post. I suppose you’re right that since our movie about two friends trying to do right for each other has been caught up in this larger debate, I’ll have to face these questions as we start to promote The Dilemma. I figured I’d address your questions here and maybe answer them once and not from, as you said, “every reporter with a functioning brain.” So here we go. So why was the joke in the movie? Our lead character of Ronny Valentine has a mouth that sometimes gets him into trouble and he definitely flirts with the line of what’s okay to say. He tries to do what’s right but sometimes falls short. Who can’t relate to that? I am drawn to films that have a variety of characters with different points of view who clash, conflict and learn to live with each other. The Dilemma is a story full of flawed characters whose lives are complicated by the things they say to and hide from each other. Ronny is far from perfect and he does and says some outrageous things along the way. Was it in the script or was it a Vince Vaughn ad lib? Vince is a brilliant improvisational actor, but in this case It was always in the script. The Dilemma is a comedy for grown-ups, not kids. It’s true that the moment took on extra significance in light of some events that surrounded the release of the trailer and the studio made the decision to remove it from advertising, which I think was appropriate. I believe in sensitivity but not censorship. I feel that our film is taking additional heat as an emblem for many movies and TV shows that preceded it that have even more provocative characterizations and language. It is a slight moment in The Dilemma meant to demonstrate an aspect of our lead character’s personality, and we never expected it to represent our intentions or the point of view of the movie or those of us who made it. Did you think it wasn’t offensive? I don’t strip my films of everything that I might personally find inappropriate. Comedy or drama, I’m always trying to make choices that stir the audience in all kinds of ways. This Ronny Valentine character can be offensive and inappropriate at times and those traits are fundamental to his personality and the way our story works. Will comedy be neutered if everyone gets to complain about every potentially offensive joke in every comedy that’s made? Anybody can complain about anything in our country. It’s what I love about this place. I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and a provoker of thought. And what do you have against electric cars anyway? Nothing! We have a couple of them in our family including the one I primarily and happily drive. Guess what that makes me in the eyes of our lead character? But then again, I don’t agree with everything Ronny Valentine says and does in this comedy any more than Vince Vaughn, the screenwriter or any member of the audience should for that matter.
So much stupid, so little time. Let’s get right to it.
1.) Do not defend your cowardly use of a slur as “part of a character.” These characters are as well crafted and nuanced as a Doritos chip. This is not f**king Shakespeare. Kids will not be studying the emotional conflicts of f**king RONNY VALENTINE in class. By the way, if you wanted us to consider the character as someone real, maybe don’t name him “Ronny Valentine.” This is a character, which means he’s not real, which means he doesn’t ACTUALLY have his own thoughts. They are written for him. If your movie is so thin that this joke is essential to him being proven a douche, your movie is every bit as awful as it looks.
2.) “I believe in sensitivity, not in censorship.” Good, now that you believe in those words, let me teach you what they mean. Sensitivity is saying “this bit adds nothing at all to my movie and may hurt someone or perpetuate the dismissive attitude that some people are carrying into polling places with them.” Censorship is when someone tells you that you HAVE to take something out. So, follow me on this, if you took this out…you would be behaving SENSITIVELY to those you may hurt. Since no one is FORCING you to take it out, it’s not censorship. For our next lesson in definitions, I’d like to teach you what comedy means.
3.) Here’s the thing about you saying that you don’t consider what’s offensive: That’s a lie. You do. You just make decisions about what offensive things you will or won’t include. You don’t include blatant racism in your films. That’s a choice, right? Again, your characters aren’t real, so they don’t decide what they get to do. You do. Also, let’s set aside this bullshit about whether edgy, offensive comedy will be hurt by this. Seeing as how it is IN NO WAY FUNNY, it doesn’t belong in a discussion about comedy. You need laughter for something to be considered a joke, and let me tell you in a very scientific survey, no one ever laughed at this joke. Beyond all of that, I love offensive, edgy humor. Provided it isn’t damagingly offensive. What do I mean? Could someone be offended by something like Jackass, when Steve-O is literally swimming in human feces? Oh yes, that’s very offensive. Will people then use that as a basis to look down on others, to perpetuate their belief that some people are lesser-people? Probably not. Other than Steve-O, who is clearly not human. Point is, Ronny, offensive humor still has a limit for those with a conscience.
4.) The most offensive thing in your defense was when you called yourself a storyteller. Yes, weave your tale of legend, you gorgeous craftsman of lore. My favorite part of this transformational tale is when Vaughn falls into poison ivy. You, sir, are an artist. And should anyone interfere with your art, the first amendment itself may well fall prey.
You know why this matters, Ron? Because smart people know you’re using this. You’re keeping it in so that people remain stirred up about this bomb-waiting-to-happen. Controversy sells tickets, and this isn’t even controversy. Your audience, demographically speaking, has a problem with gays. And you know it. You think the Adam Sandler frat-pack is chock-full of tolerance? If a homosexual stood up in the audience of one of Kevin James’ movies and revealed himself, he’d get trash thrown at him and you know it. You know the core audience for this film will LIKE that you’re keeping it in. You know that those who don’t like it and cause a ruckus about it will only increase awareness of your movie. If this is a “slight moment” and there is a CHANCE that it could hurt someone or something, why leave it in? You’re not smarter than us, we know what you’re doing.
Let me end by saying this: It matters. These little gay jokes…they matter. They matter to the 12-year-old kid that hear people snicker when they use an orientation he’s struggling to be comfortable with as a f**king punchline. They matter when adults who are increasingly voting to keep some of our citizens as second-class hear others like them chortle at the mere mention of the word. They matter because the real way that prejudice is enforced and supported isn’t by hateful bigots that are obvious and easily dismissed but by subtle, tiny things that people hear and accept without thinking of it. Tell yourself that this doesn’t matter, but you’re wrong, wrong, wrong.
I am embarrassed that you thought it was okay in the first place. Double embarrassed by the moment’s inclusion IN THE TRAILER. Triple embarrassed by this half-assed defense of prejudice and insult. This is a bad thing you are doing, and doing so knowingly and defending it publicly makes you a bad person for doing it. Shame on you, Ron Howard. You should be forced to send that letter to the parents of the children who have killed themselves after being bullied for being gay. Sit down with those parents, Ronnie, and tell them that they’re just being too sensitive about a little joke. Shame on you.