Insensitive Things Come in Small Packages: Tiptoes (2003)

The plight of ‘little people’ – dwarves for those who need a more technical term – used to be an unspoken predicament in supposedly polite society. Few ventured to guess about the turmoil and troubles of those hampered by diminutive size and their surrounding medical/psychological issues. Instead, they chalked their life up to a ‘sad until the circus comes to town’ mentality and propped them up as punchlines in their own private prejudice. As with any other disability, dwarfism is easily misunderstood and frequently mocked – and it hasn’t helped that cable channels like TLC have used the biological anomaly as the means of exploiting the ratings ripe visual of seeing a tiny chocolatier covered in his own product (it’s even ickier than it sounds). Into this battle between virtuous intention and Verne Troyer comes Tiptoes. Clearly crafted as a wake-up call to all the nasty “normals” out there, it substitutes schmaltz for sincerity to create a heated hate crime all its own.

Steven (Matthew McConaughey) is a firefighting instructor. He is in love with and engaged to the beautiful bohemian artist Carol (Kate Beckinsale – who you can tell is an oddball because she has red tint at the edges of her hairdo and sports a sassy silent movie actress tattoo). When he finds out she is pregnant with their child, it instantly causes chaos. You see, Steven has been hiding a pretty big secret from his lady love, and he’s not sure how she will react: he is a twin, and his brother Rolfe (Gary Oldman in Elephant Man weird make-up) is a dwarf. In fact, his whole family are dwarves, with Steven the only “regular” relative among an extended group of mini-kinfolk. Naturally, he is afraid that he will pass on the pint-sized genes to his offspring, and this causes massive concern. Still, our couple eventually marries, and after the baby is born, Steven has a crisis of conscience. Luckily, Carol has Rolfe and his collection of halfling heroes to help her understand the turmoil her man is going through – as well as the benefits of going “small.”

Thank you Tiptoes. Thank you so very bloody much. It takes a lot to taint Gary Oldman’s otherwise exemplary acting career (though he has helped out a little with such turkey as The Scarlett Letter and Lost in Space), but you managed to find a way – and it’s about as wacked out as any cinematic soiling can be. First off, you decided that, instead of hiring an actual little person to play the role of Matthew McConaughey’s far less unlikable twin, you would simply cast a standard sized actor and “downsize him” via special effects. That’s strike one, considering how wonky and unsuccessful the attempted transformation is. Instead of making a convincing dwarf, Oldman looks like a regular guy perplexed by a hunchback, pancake make-up, and a bad Southern accent. Second, you saddle him with a bombastic best friend played by the great Peter Dinklage. Since the character is French, a free spirit, and a self-professed Marxist, he is constantly spouting off about stuff that no one care about – that is, when he’s not pawing Patricia Arquette like a horny little toad. Strike two.

But perhaps the most egregious offense aimed at the artist formerly famous for playing Sid Vicious is the casting of Howard Stern favorite Bridget Powers (or “Powerz”, or sometimes known by the very un-PC name, “Bridget the Midget”). Granted, we all have to make our way in the world and if the diminutive Miss needs to sell her body to make said scratch, more micro-power to her. But make no mistake about it, she is an infamous porn star, propped up against the Oscar nominee as his former high school sweetheart, now amorous albatross Sally. Peroxided to the max and working her four letter sailor slang with eager efficiency, she’s like a walking indictment of everything Tiptoes stands for – at least from a metaphysical standpoint. The film force feeds us the notion that dwarves lead happy, productive, personable lives – and one always assumes that they do. But to then cast a actress best known (at least by a few in the intended audience) for her boudoir bravado seems to suggest that all the “everything’s fine” falderal is just so much do gooder dog crap. Strike three and out.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Tiptoes also turns McConaughey into the typical self-hating indirect member of a specific handicapped company. Sure, he’s all brawn and beef, showing off his toasted and tanned torso at least once during the running time. But he is supposed to be laden with ‘defective’ DNA (he and Oldman are twins, remember), and so the movie makes the case that Steven is incapable of embracing his dormant dwarfism. His undersized family are all wonderful, played as picture book saints so that no one gets the wrong impression (that’s left to Dinklage and Ms. Powerz to carry) and Rolfe, while a complaining sod at best, has a good passive heart. So why does Steven hate his crooked chromosomes? Because, as a child, his brother complained a lot and was in a lot of pain, needing many remedial procedures to help him deal with his condition. While he can later claim a classic “I told you so” response to Beckinsale’s nonsensical nobility, he’s still a dick – and he is someone we are supposed to sympathize with…if only a little? Huh?

The travesties heaped upon the human race as a result of Tiptoes go beyond mere misrepresentation of the human condition – no matter the dimension Director Matthew Bright (an original member of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, by the way) gives everything a turgid, ‘as told to Lifetime movies’ look, perhaps the result of sledgehammer editing by producers post-production (as with most cinematic atrocities, there is a healthy backstory to support Tiptoes‘ terribleness). First – and so far only – time screenwriter Bill Weiner doesn’t help matter much either. His idea of heavy dialogue is to make Dinklage shout “bourgeois” in a labored Parisian accent. While the cast is capable, you can see they are battling upstream. Oldman does the best he can with Rolfe’s complaining calm, slipping in and out of his drawl at times. Beckinsale and McConaughey were clearly hired to look good together, and the rest of the little person company seem selected for their After School Special like aptitude at delivering reams of relevant factoids. They’re like guest speakers at a flawed physiology symposium. About the only subject they don’t cover is dwarf intercourse (though Carol questions Steven on the subject, if briefly).

The results defy description. It’s like watching a practical joke that’s actually not intended to be funny. Oldman’s “bravery” at taking on such a potentially career killing role reminds us that, sometimes, actors make lousy decisions and the desire to paint little people in a far more understandable and sympathetic light is constantly countermanded by clichés and other overused filmmaking formula. Oh, and did we mention comedian David Allen Grier is on hand to…well, it’s almost impossible to tell. Decades ago, Hollywood made the “all midget Western” The Terror of Tiny Town. Rightfully rejected for its “pipsqueaks on ponies” demeaning of an entire populace, the dwarf has still seen its fortunes forced into farce and otherwise Fellini-esque examples of oddness. Tiptoes will tell you it was trying to change that distorted perception. That they only managed to pervert it more illustrates how horrible its hackneyed motives truly are.

Rating: 2 WTFs