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In Defense of That Taboo Word ‘Retard’

This is really about my inner clod, who wants the right to burp, drink beer and enjoy the word “retard” once in a while. In the 20 years since “Rain Man,” our movie culture has evolved into ever more sensitive appreciation for the various mental, emotional and psychological issues that take us away from being […]

This is really about my inner clod, who wants the right to burp, drink beer and enjoy the word “retard” once in a while.

In the 20 years since “Rain Man,” our movie culture has evolved into ever more sensitive appreciation for the various mental, emotional and psychological issues that take us away from being the people we’d love to be. There’s a lot of sensitivity floating around, with regard to autism, Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder and other psychologically or emotionally based conditions.

Witness the romantic comedy, “Adam,” in which a young man with Asperberger’s (British nerd-hunk Hugh Dancey) tries to negotiate his way through the rocky seas of love. He is obsessed with astronomy — a classic signifier of his condition. And he’s not too swift with the empathy thing.

Or watch “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” a comedy about used-car salesmen that features Rob Riggle as a 10 year boy trapped in a man’s body. He’s metaphorically an Adult with Issues, as he struggles to cope with the attention of a woman who wants to have hot animal sex with him. And we laugh at that implication in parenthesis.

The list is long. There was 2007’s “Snow Cake,” featuring Sigourney Weaver as a bereaved woman with autism who loses a daughter but gains Alan Rickman. There was also 2005’s “Mozart and the Whale,” based on a real-life relationship, about two people with Asperger’s in love.

The 2007 documentary “Autism: The Musical” followed the lives of five autistic children involved in a stage production.

“Elling,” Norway’s 2001 entry for Best Foreign Language Film, was about two men with compulsions and phobias who try to live as roommates in a state sponsored apartment. In 1997’s “As Good as It Gets,” Jack Nicholson got into the act, as an obsessive who falls in love with a relatively “normal” woman while avoiding all those cracks in the sidewalk.

And we must also mention Forrest Gump, who isn’t touched or retarded or anything but he sure comes close.

The point is, we are becoming used to a movie universe of characters who are casually — and vaguely — afflicted with/touched by/struggling with Something. This para-reality seemed to come full circle in the faux-documentary “Paper Hearts,” which stars the odd duck Charlyne Yi as a faux-reality TV version of herself, who finds it impossible to fall in love.

For the legal record, I am not saying she is mentally retarded. But I am saying she may hail from the planet Quirk-a-tron in some distant pocket of the galaxy. Her persona — a mixture of her real self and the play-acting version she affects for the camera — seems to be missing empathy. She seems to be missing a lot of things.

She’s another of the vaguely touched. But this doesn’t seem like acting. Yet no one in this mocku-doc raises the question. We are expected to  accept her as the normal center of the movie.

I thought about introducing her to Adam.

My inner clod sat up inside me and whispered, “Nuclear retard.”

Yes, I know as much as the next sensitively wired person that “retard” refers pejoratively to anyone whose emotional issues and other life-coping skills are way too complex for such a reductive term. But all this sensitivity — ironically — gives the term a new volatility.

It gives “retard” a sort of morally guilty pleasure. Gives it a mischievously cathartic sound. You can say it to your friends. Like: “Mike you are such a retard.” Or it’s your sister, good naturedly shaking her head at her prankish brother and good naturedly calling you the same thing.

The implication is, we are all just about one shaky mental stumble away from the abyss of insanity. We’re precariously stuck on the high ledge of a skyscraper. Laugh about it, take a glimpse Down There — but don’t jump.

Luckily we have comedy as our moral safety valve — to utter the taboo and get away with it.

Who can forget the scene in “Tropic Thunder” in which Robert Downey Jr., playing a “black” movie actor Kirk Lazarus, cautions fellow actor Tugg Speedman (played by Ben Stiller) never to go “full retard” when playing a character with mental or emotional issues.

Sean Penn, he says, went “full retard” when he played the title character in “I Am Sam.”

In “There’s Something About Mary,” a deeply insensitive character played by Matt Dillon, tries to impress a woman (Cameron Diaz) by declaring “I work with retards.” He speaks of one kid called Mongo, with “a forehead like a drive-in movie theater” whom he liberated from his cage by giving him a clothesline leash so he could “run back and forth” with “plenty of room for him to dig and play.”

Wicked. Socially indefensible. Funny. No excuse for it. Just sayin’.

You know, I’ve already typed the R-word so much — this is the most ever in one sitting — I am beginning to feel that I could finally let go of the word.

If I wasn’t such a …..