In the upcoming film Reagan, Will Ferrell will portray the former president and conservative icon in the second term of his presidency. Sounds vaguely normal so far, right? Well, there’s a catch—he’s playing Reagin in the throes of the real-life dementia that plagued him, and…wait for it…it’s a comedy. The idea, from the logline, is that “an ambitious intern is tasked with convincing the Commander-In-Chief that he is an actor playing the President in a movie.”
Right off the bat, it sounds super controversial. I like dark humor, so I find the idea funny, but it’s not hard to see how those who have watched friends and loved ones suffer from dementia would be less amused, if not outright offended. Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan’s daughter, is one of those people, and she’s pretty upset about the whole thing. In an open letter to Ferrell, who is also producing, she took him to task for his choice:
I saw the news bulletin — as did everyone — that you intend to portray my father in the throes of Alzheimer’s for a comedy that you are also producing. Perhaps you have managed to retain some ignorance about Alzheimer’s and other versions of dementia. Perhaps if you knew more, you would not find the subject humorous.
Alzheimer’s doesn’t care if you are President of the United States or a dockworker. It steals what is most precious to a human being — memories, connections, the familiar landmarks of a lifetime that we all come to rely on to hold our place secure in this world and keep us linked to those we have come to know and love. I watched as fear invaded my father’s eyes — this man who was never afraid of anything. I heard his voice tremble as he stood in the living room and said, “I don’t know where I am.” I watched helplessly as he reached for memories, for words, that were suddenly out of reach and moving farther away. For ten long years he drifted — past the memories that marked his life, past all that was familiar…and mercifully, finally past the fear.
The letter goes on this vein, and it’s hard to imagine how Ferrell will reply, if he does at all:
Alzheimer’s is the ultimate pirate, pillaging a person’s life and leaving an empty landscape behind. It sweeps up entire families, forcing everyone to claw their way through overwhelming grief, confusion, helplessness, and anger. Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have — I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.
Now, it’s tough to argue against this without seeming like a real douchebag, and any debate will boil down to the central argument of how much license comedians should have to mine dark or tragic material, and where they (or society?) should draw the line. It will be interesting to see where this one goes.