Tuesday, September 19, 2006

MIKE JUDGE'S IDIOCRACY: FEAR FOR A DUMB PLANET, FEAR OF A SMART, FUNNY MOVIE


As one who appreciates Mike Judge’s animated work (Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill) as well as his cult hit live-action feature comedy Office Space, I’d spent the better part of a year reading about his upcoming new picture, usually referred to as “Untitled Mike Judge Comedy.” So when I came home after a Labor Day weekend vacation to discover, in the fine print of the local theater chain listings, that Judge’s movie, which now had a title-- Idiocracy-- had been “released” without any fanfare, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the movie was being unceremoniously dumped in a handful of markets and left for some studio exec’s self-fulfilling prophecy to officially declare it dead.

Plenty has been written in the last week about the wisdom (or lack thereof) of that decision by its studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, and whether there’s some conspiracy afoot to quash Judge’s vision. But as writer Joel Stein observed in his article for Time magazine entitled “Dude, Where’s My Film?”, it may be as simple as the marketing department realizing it had been flummoxed by the “Is it stupid or is it smart?” conundrum that the movie spins for itself. According to Stein, “The biggest sin a director can commit isn't making a bad movie, it's making one that doesn't make a good ad.” And to watch Fox scramble away from Judge, a filmmaker who has, to paraphrase one Chico Escuela, been very, very good for them, it’s hard not to agree.


And really, what’s news about the cold feet of movie studios? Just about everyone in Hollywood short of Steven Spielberg is only as good as his last movie, and despite the fact that Office Space blossomed from a theatrical weed into a DVD cult orchid, Fox may have figured that that the name “Mike Judge” wasn’t going to transform another likely cult oddity into Talledega Nights, box office-wise. Which begs the question, what did the Fox folks think Judge was cooking up here? Stein reports that “every ad and trailer the studio put together for it tested atrociously,” and Ross Ruediger, who heads up The Rued Morgue and has followed the movie’s rocky path to semi-release, told me in an e-mail that he suspects an official trailer was never cut and shown in theaters, a development seemingly confirmed by the absence of a link to a trailer under the movie’s listing on IMDb or on any of the usual Internet outlets.

Yet the fate of Idiocracy is hardly the result of a conspiracy. Instead, it’s just the most recent illustration of Hollywood’s make-or-break mentality, where the nether-region between mammoth culture-strangling hit and milquetoast box-office nonentity has been all but erased. If the powers that be can’t figure out a way to at least raise the theatrical profile of a low-budget comedy with this many bodily-function belly laughs, which also just happens to be way smarter than the a-ver-age fare, in order to pave the way for a profitable DVD afterlife, then Judge’s genuinely dystopian, choke-on-your-laughter vision of a dumbed-down society may be a whole lot closer to being realized than we might like to think.


But then, that’s Judge’s point. It’s not exactly a new strategy for satirists and social commentators to use the science fiction genre to posit a future that deals with, or illustrates the result of, the problems in a society that are happening right now. And Judge’s premise, borne of a satiric approach to the fallacies of eugenics, leaves plenty of rope for humanity to hang itself, presuming it can figure out how to properly tie the noose. The groundwork for Idiocracy is laid in a hilarious parody of authoritarian educational films that exposes the roots of humanity’s slippery slide toward pea-brain-osity in the frigidity of intellectuals (or at least their yuppie subset) and the unchecked rutting of the uneducated poor. Smart folks are too selfish to procreate, while Li’l Abner and Daisy Mae can’t keep their genitalia to themselves. Sounds simple enough, right? But by the time the movie really gets going Judge has laid culpability for the crumbling mental capacity of society at the feet of lawmakers, corporations and opportunistic politicians too. And let’s not forget the military—insofar as they represent by definition the aggressive arm of any government, Judge certainly hasn’t. A low-level army base slacker (Luke Wilson) and a randomly selected hooker (Maya Rudolph) are selected to participate in a military experiment, headed by an officer with more than just a little taste for the pimpin’ lifestyle—that’s how the hooker gets roped in. The experiment is designed to monitor physical changes in cryogenically frozen subjects over a period of a year. But when the officer’s illegal activities end up getting him imprisoned and the base bulldozed, Wilson and Rudolph are left on ice not for a year but for 500. The pair, barely three digits in the IQ department between them to start with, awaken to a world so battered and worn down by an abased pop culture, relentless corporate corruption and political ineffectuality that they are, by acidly ironic default, the smartest people on the planet.

The movie alternately cruises happily on its concept and lurches through the dead spots that are part and parcel for any movie comedy searching to knock the comedy ball out of the park with every joke, observation or bit of performance. And it goes officially soggy when Wilson’s adventures take him out of the depths of ignominy after a botched prison escape and into the White House, where the president, a champion WWF-type wrestler, charges him with fixing all the country’s problems with his prodigious intellect, and threatens death if he fails to do so. But Idiocracy’s tendency to democratize stupidity is its saving grace— everybody is an equal-opportunity doofus, even our hero, who can’t believe his own level of condescension towards the denizens of this dumb society largely because he knows in his heart that he isn’t all that bright either. For a movie that stirs some genuine feelings of despair out of its grungy comic-satiric premise, it isn’t satisfied to sit on its hands while the citizenry of this pit of a burg come off like numb-nuts Mad TV versions of the zombies in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Judge displays some genuine empathy for these hopeless dopes, and perhaps it’s his attitude towards these folks—ambivalence mixed with appreciation for their neutralized potential as human beings—that sparks the heart of this movie while at the same time it confuses its audience (and its studio backers) as to just how to see them, as victims or perpetuators of the movie’s central problem.

Of course, Fox might insist, that’s the problem in trying to figure out how to market Idiocracy too. Is a movie with this many top-echelon low-brow bits and gross-out gags part of the solution, as far as satire resolves to “solve” anything, or is it part of the trouble? Inasmuch as it seems to confuse studio bigwigs, does it also inure audiences, particularly those couch-potato types who now stand as the movie’s best chance at achieving some level of stature as a home video hit, to the kind of comedy that relies more on verbal wit and subtle references than jokes about recognizable coffee franchises that, in Judge’s future, double as hand-job parlors? Well, when you see Idiocracy on DVD, which will be your only option after this Thursday, when the 30 or so screens its still playing on nationwide are given over to the likes of Jackass Number Two (yet more id/ego hand-wringing on my part?!), perhaps you’ll be too busy noticing how Luke Wilson has never been quite so good, or so confident onscreen, as he seems in this role to ponder such imponderables, or at least let them get in the way of this fella's way with a grin or a disbelieving sidelong glance.

Or perhaps you’ll recognize that Maya Rudolph is as impudently sexy and sharp for Judge as she was impatiently, insistently funny for Robert Altman in A Prairie Home Companion and not worry so much about whether Judge’s concept is bolstered or watered-down by its reasonably sunny conclusion. Perhaps you’ll get a profound tickle out of the hastily assembled CGI effects (courtesy of Judge compadre Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios) which trade wit for visual verisimilitude and add much to Idiocracy’s hilarious, caked-on drabness, a sharp rejoinder (born of budgetary constraints as much as artistic choice, to be sure) to the kind of overdesigned dystopian amusement parks that have cluttered American and European science fiction cinema in the 25 years since the release of Blade Runner. Perhaps you’ll wonder why, if you can possibly stop giggling long enough to even consider it, Judge stock player Stephen Root shows up presiding over a trial looking a whole lot like the X-Men’s Wolverine, but with twirling eyes that simultaneously see more (in the form of dancing zoo animals, perhaps) and less than we do. (Those twirling eyes muddy up a version of Root’s patented dementia to a uncomfortable degree.)

Or perhaps, rather than worry too much about whether Judge’s comic sci-fi postulating straddles the fence between low-brow guffaws and highfalutin satirical exploration, you’ll revel in the performance of Dax Shepard, who plays the dazed, nasally impeded and none-too-talented defense lawyer who goes by the name Frito and ends up trying to guide Wilson and Rudolph to a time machine that he insists is located just the other side of a city-sized CostCo. Shepard is, amazingly, both dead-eyed and wildly alive in his screen presence, and he has some of the finest droopy-lidded visual retorts to the array of confusion that everyday life represents to him, usually accompanied by a truncated grunt, that I could ever imagine. Shepard is introduced to the film when his apartment, a futuristic trash pit where he sits pacified, sucking on some unidentified mucousy liquid snack and watching his favorite TV show, the hugely popular Ow! My Balls!, is inadvertently invaded when Wilson’s cryo-pod crashes through a flimsy wall. Wilson makes his way out of the apartment and away from the understandably hostile Frito after a brief scene, and I remember thinking, “Okay, good, that’s enough of that one-note character. Let’s move on.” But Shepard’s triumph as a performer is that he sucks you into Frito’s stunned, indignant resistance to having his placid existence stirred up. He creates a kind of dizzy empathy for his character’s adenoidal non-response to the movie’s escalating lunacy, always relying on a natural, almost lilting sense of timing and sensitivity to his fellow performers. This performance should be looked at very closely by those actors of his generation who want to see how a brilliant comic performance is crafted, or who perhaps want to someday attempt one themselves. Shepard’s Frito is to Idiocracy what David Herman’s Michael Bolton was to Office Space-- a comic id chorus and a welcome point of identification for an audience that wants to transgress the white-bread behavior of the movie’s ostensible “hero.” Shepard’s performance, however, goes beyond the obvious level of probing Frito’s dull wit for cheap laughs toward a more precise and empathetic encapsulation of the underachievement, as well as the possibilities, of this fucked-up future, a kind of transcendence that, for all of Bolton’s hilarious wigger taste in hardcore rap (and simultaneous fear of a black panhandler, not to mention a black planet), Herman never quite achieved.

The dumping of Idiocracy by Fox hardly classifies as a cultural crime. But it is a little dumbfounding to witness a big studio go all pie-eyed and goofy over the prospect of marketing what seems like, if not, well, a no-brainer, then at least hardly the advertising Everest it was made out to be. I missed the Los Angeles Times Calendar section the morning the movie came out, so I can’t say what appeared in that section, but I know that I never saw a subsequent ad in that paper or any other in a market where Idiocracy was playing. And even as I stood two feet away from the movie’s apparently hastily designed one-sheet before entering the 35-seat cinema in the Beverly Center where my wife and I saw the movie last week, I had a hard time grasping exactly what the concept of the artwork or the thrust of the advertising campaign was.

As we came out of the cinema, me, my mile-wide grin and my wife (she liked it too), I realized that by the time I would be able to sit down and write a review of Idiocracy, the movie would be, for all intents and purposes, gone with the wind. (As of this writing, Judge’s movie is playing in exactly six movie theaters in Los Angeles.) I only hope that some sort of grass-roots glomming onto this movie takes place the way it did in the wake of Office Space’s less-than-torrential theatrical run. (At least Office Space was granted a theatrical run, with TV ads and everything.) The point is not that Idiocracy is one of those movies that must, simply must be seen on the big screen to appreciate its graphic acuity and breathtaking beauty-- this movie doesn’t even have the zip Panavision brought to the otherwise routine-looking Blazing Saddles, which Pauline Kael dismissed as visually clunky, dirty 1974-era TV writ large. No, the point is that we Americans, fond as we are of the lewd, hilarious and much-smarter-than-advertised comedies of the Farrelly Brothers, Kevin Smith, and of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, never got a chance to reject or accept Judge’s latest for ourselves. Idiocracy is a smart movie about the erosion of intelligence in America, and the world, and in an era where spoon-feeding audiences and voters and congregations predigested content for their own good is S.O.P., it deserves an audience. It’s as simple as that.

4 comments:

Ross Ruediger said...

Dennis -

Great work, man. I never got around to writing you back, but it seems that some of my thoughts wiggled their way into your head.

Meant to write you back after your missive to say that as I've yet to see the film, I can regardless recognize that you've got a far sharper take on the behind-the-scenes nonsense due simply to your viewing of it.

I was analyzing from a cold, abstract standpoint, and there's really nothing about the movie-going experience that should be viewed as abstract.

And I think this piece reflects that, too. (I'm quite sure none of the above makes a lick of sense.)

Reel Fanatic said...

great stuff .. as a fan of Mr. Judge (yes, even, and maybe especially, Beavis and Butthead), I too had been eagerly awating this one ... There is absolutely no chance, however, that even if it makes it outside of it's Austin and three cities circuit it will ever play in my little corner of the world .. oh well . at least there's DVD!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Ross, RF: Thanks for checking in. I really hope you'll both get a chance to see the movie and judge for yourself. Jim Emerson posted a link to this essay, and so far all of the commenters, even some who liked Judge's previous stuff, were considerably underwhelmed by the movie. But that's okay-- hearing other voices about what I've written, especially those that disagree, helps me to continue to work through my own impressions, and there's nothing wrong with listening to someone else's point of view to see if they might be right. Like it or not, I'd be hard-pressed to imagine a fan of film comedy who wouldn't at least admit Idiocracy was worth seeing, which is what's irritating about the movie's treatment in the marketplace, because people like you guys didn't get a chance to do just that.

pedropolis@gmail.com said...

Spot on review of a film I've now watched twice in two days. I was very impressed with how layered and realized Judge was able to make his vision of the future and have become somewhat obsessed with finding an original copy of the script to see what changes the studio might have made. I'm wondering if they might have Brazil-ed Idiocracy, which would be a horrible, terrible shame. The film is a potent truth to a future that gets closer by the day.

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