Last week there were reports that Will Ferrell was pursuing a new movie in which he would portray Ronald Reagan. The project was pitched as a comedy set during Reagan’s second term, in which he is depicted as already in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and an intern is charged with convincing Reagan that he is an actor portraying the President. After an outcry about the insensitivity of the concept from Reagan’s children and others, one of Ferrell’s representatives said the actor wasn’t going to do the movie.
I get why the Reagan children reacted as they did, and I think Ferrell was wise to back away from the project. The reality is that Alzheimer’s disease really isn’t very funny. Sure, many people who have had to deal with a family member with the disease probably have shaken their heads and had a rueful laugh about a particular episode that demonstrates how the ill person has changed — whether by repeating themselves, or by not knowing a friend or family member, or by showing radical changes to their personality as the disease ravages their brain — but it’s defensive humor, designed to help you cope with the realization that a person you know and love is falling into a black pit from which they will never emerge, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
I’ve read several memoirs written by children who’ve cared for parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia. When the books share a “humorous” anecdote, as they sometimes do, it’s uncomfortable reading because the victim of the disease is inevitably the butt of the humor — because they’ve forgotten where they are, or have taken a shower with their pants on, or have used a word that they would never had said before in polite company. It’s not really funny at all. It’s tragic, and it’s not fair to the person whose intellect and personality and consciousness is being irreversibly stripped away, bit by bit, until only an unfamiliar shell remains. They can’t help themselves.
I suppose a hard-bitten, cynical Hollywood agent might think a script about an intern deceiving a character in the grip of Alzheimer’s was a laugh riot, but only if that agent didn’t know anyone who had experienced the disease. These days, there aren’t many people who fall into that category, and those who have been touched aren’t going to go watch a “comedy” that reminds them of the devastation the disease inflicted. And if such a movie ever gets made, how many members of the audience are going to erupt in belly laughs about the lead character’s painful confusion?
My guess is that most people who watched such a movie would leave with the same fervent vow found among people who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in their families. It goes like this: “Please don’t let me ever, ever get Alzheimer’s.”