Thursday, October 21, 2010

"The Dilemma" Dilemma

I know I promised to cover Act I of Fargo in the next post, but I want to take a quick break from my ongoing structural essay to discuss a timely controversy going on in the film business.  I’ll post about Fargo very soon.

The controversy in question is about the insensitive gay joke in the upcoming movie The Dilemma (written by Allan Loeb).  If you’re unfamiliar, there’s a scene in the trailer where Vince Vaughan says during a business presentation, “Electric cars are gay.  I mean, not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”  This has generated enough controversy that the studio pulled the trailer and is considering whether to remove the scene from the movie.  There are talks of protests and maybe even boycotts.

Now personally I’m a big supporter of gay rights, but I don’t want to discuss this situation from a socio-political standpoint. Instead, let's look at the practical screenwriting issue here.  Because this kind of controversy is generally not good for the movie or the screenwriter’s career (though Allan Loeb probably won't suffer much... he has a pretty good filmography).

Some people have suggested that the issue has blown up because of unfortunate timing.  The trailer hit theaters in the wake of a highly publicized spate of suicides by gay teens in the U.S. who were the victims of bullying.  It has been pointed out that The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) had far more offensive gay jokes and didn’t cause such a fuss (though the jokes weren’t in the trailer).  And as gay jokes go the one in The Dilemma is pretty mild.

I suspect timing is indeed a big part of why this issue has blown up.  But that’s cold comfort to the studio and filmmakers who made the movie.  And though The Hangover didn’t generate much controversy on release, it is telling that it has been dragged into this argument.

Which brings me to my main point.  The risk of including potentially offensive humor in a movie is that it doesn’t age well.  Song of the South (story by Dalton S. Reymond, Bill Peet, Ralph Wright & Vernon Stallings, written by Dalton S. Reymond & Morton Grant & Maurice Rapf) is the one animated movie that has been buried by Disney due to racist portrayals of Blacks.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (screenplay by George Axelrod) and Sixteen Candles (written by John Hughes) induce cringes today with their racist Asian jokes.

We might cut these movies a little slack because they were made in another time with different standards.  That doesn't change how dated they feel, though.  And the filmmakers behind The Dilemma can’t really claim ignorance.  Anybody paying attention can see that gay rights are the next big social justice issue and that there is no such thing as a “throwaway” gay joke anymore.

So what should a comedy writer do?  On the one hand cultural and social conflicts are good sources of humor – and can even elevate a comedy if done well.  And of course good comedy is often risky.  When you do something risky there is, well, risk of upsetting people.  Playing it safe isn't a good approach.

On the other hand I think most filmmakers are at least a little motivated by the idea of leaving a legacy.  They want their films to outlive them.  If you go for borderline offensive cultural humor today your film may not hold up even a few years from now.

My advice is to be very careful when treading on potentially culturally offensive ground.  That ground moves constantly.

Okay, back to structure and Fargo very soon!


Sanket said...

Atleast they will get free publicity out of this. And as they say any publicity is good publicity.

I think 40-Year-Old-Virgin had pretty offensive gay jokes as PaulJudd and SethRogen were teasing each other how the other one is gay while playing video games at SteveCarell's.

Unknown said...

The word gay has had several meanings over the years. Could it be that at this point in time in addition to meaning homosexual it could also mean exactly what Vince Vaughn's character says in the movie? "Not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.” Something considered "not cool"?

In the 17th century the term gay meant something immoral. Gay came to mean homosexual because it was associated with immorality.

The meaning of words change over time. Twenty years from now, we might think that calling homosexuals "gay" is politically incorrect just like we don't use the term "colored" anymore. That was politically correct only a few decades ago.

I think the word "straight" would offend people more. It means a person who conforms to society's norms and is leading a respectable, correct or proper lifestyle. To say "I'm straight and you're not, because you're a homosexual" is absolutely derogatory. The very word implies that straight people are right and non-straight people are wrong. But, most people don't think of it like that. And yet it is used everyday without anyone complaining.

Doug Eboch said...

Sanket: Yeah, 40 Year Old Virgin is another movie that's been mentioned in the controversy. I don't know if this will be a case of any publicity is good publicity. That saying doesn't always turn out to be true - just look at Snakes on a Plane or I Know Who Killed Me.

Daniel: It is tough to know what's going to be considered offensive in the future. But I bet they could have come up with a good joke using the word "lame" and they would have been perfectly safe.