Thursday, April 26, 2007

Random Movie Report #25: Idiocracy

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Mike Judge's IDIOCRACY was rather famously buried by 20th Century Fox, who showed it in random theaters across the country over a two year period, never actually telling people and occasionally surprising janitors who were cleaning up after the last show of X3. Finally it was dumped on DVD, where you can now actually see it. In fairness, it was a hard movie to sell, but it's rare for a studio to completely give up like this. Strangely enough, though, the buzz about the film's non-release guaranteed it a small cult audience of sorts. Maybe that was the idea (although it seems like a lot of trouble to go through.) In any case, IDIOCRACY is a clever dark future comedy, which represents quite a bit of progress for Judge as a filmmaker. It's flawed, and I suspect there may have been some interference even during production, but it deserves to be seen by a wider audience, and has a few points to make even if its subject is fairly obvious.

Luke Wilson stars as Joe Bauers, a military library worker selected for a government experiment on the basis of his extreme averageness. He, and Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute bought from a local pimp, are placed in hibernation; the plan is to revive them a year later, but in the interim the project's boss is arrested, the base closed down, and the experiment forgotten. As centuries pass, human evolution takes a downward turn; smart people are having few (if any) children, and the dumber couples breed at a rapid rate. When a garbage avalanche knocks Joe out of his hibernation chamber, he awakens to find himself the smartest man on Earth. Society is dumbed-down and run-down, with the citizenry vegging out in reclining toilets watching shows like "Ow! My Balls!" Joe is arrested for not having a required barcode on his arm, but easily escapes from the poorly guarded prison. He enlists the help of typical future citizen Frito (Dax Shepard), his court-appointed attorney who was of no help whatsoever, but who now promises to help him find a time machine to go back to his era. After rounding up Rita (who has been making a lot of money off of horny idiots), he sets out in search of a machine that he feels sure must exist, but in the meantime, word that he's the smartest guy on Earth has gone all the way to the pro-wrestler-esque President Camacho (Terry Alan Crews), who needs someone to work on the agriculture problem. Seems that ever since the Brawndo company got its high-electrolyte sports drink to replace water everywhere except the toilet, crops just haven't been growing...

Because this is a dystopia of sorts and because I am a sci-fi geek, my first inclination is to pick at the details. It's somewhat hard to imagine a society of idiots functioning even to the degree it does here- how can there be TV networks without technicians, or electricity without people running the power plants?- but it's conceivable that in the interim, things like this were made to run close to automatically (we see a hospital worker pushing buttons with pictures of symptoms on them), and we do effectively see that the world is just sort of hanging together. In fact, it's not clear whether the world or just America is like this, though if we were to be dull and realistic the latter would be somewhat more plausible as different cultures place different values on education and intelligence. (It wouldn't really affect the story either way, though- the future US could simply be a third world country surrounded by smarter nations.) None of this is hugely important, as the movie is a fairly broad comedy, but the film does have just enough detail to raise these kinds of questions.

The film has a much stronger plotline than Judge's OFFICE SPACE, which, funny as it was, was dragged down a bit by the story in the final act. IDIOCRACY doesn't have as many laugh-out-loud moments, but keeps up an amusing and genial tone throughout. As much as the premise of the film may be more than a tad elitist, it takes some jabs at the smart crowd early on, showing a typical educated affluent couple putting off children until it's too late, and explaining that scientists failed to notice the lowering IQ of society because they were busy tackling the problems of hair loss and erectile dysfunction. A lot of minor details are dead on, particularly relating to the increased "machoness" of the dumb new world- Joe is continually referred to with a homophobic slur because he speaks eloquently, a fast food restaurant has the slogan "Fuck you, I'm eating", and Starbucks has become a chain of strip joints. As Joe sleeps, the decline of society is represented by Fuddrucker's slow yet inevitable transformation to "Buttfucker's". (The film's R rating comes completely from language.)

There's one big problem with the movie, though. The film is narrated by Earl Mann, and it's the kind of narration that kind of oversteps its boundaries and starts describing (and talking over) things we could simply see and hear instead, at times summing up the dialogue of scenes that we're already watching. It feels very clumsy and intrusive, and I wonder if this wasn't a last-ditch attempt by Fox to make this film somehow more appealing to audiences after poor test screenings. Parts of the narration are actually important, mind you, but the explanations of what we can see happening on screen or could work out from what people were saying if we were allowed to hear it come across as downright condescending, which is not the kind of effect a movie like this wants to generate.

Luke Wilson gives one of his better performances here, but it may just be that his natural screen persona is ideal for the character of Joe (dubbed "Not Sure" by the future society due to a mix-up at the barcode implantation center.) The funniest turn is probably by Dax Shepard, who portrays the average citizen of the future in a way that's very childlike and instinct driven. Maya Rudolph is strong as well, and Terry Crews has excellent screen presence. (I'm actually surprised that I never saw Judge himself in this movie, though OFFICE SPACE's Stephen Root has a good cameo.)

IDIOCRACY doesn't quite live up to the potential of its premise, mostly because there isn't time in an 84-minute comedy to explore all that. (I haven't yet had a look at the deleted scenes on the DVD, though I'm told they don't add up to a lot.) But it deserved better than to be abandoned by its studio, and maybe now it will at least get seen by somebody. I'm not sure if Mike Judge is doing anything but preaching to the choir on this issue (or even how much of it actually holds- intelligence is not just about genetics, as far as we know), but he's created something thought-provoking and entertaining. Satire may be what closes on Saturday night, but hopefully he and others will keep trying to at least open on Friday.

Story by Mike Judge
Screenplay by Mike Judge & Etan Coen
Directed by Mike Judge

Grade: B+

1 comment:

Piper said...

I wrote a post about this saying that I can't understand why The Benchwarmers gets a regular release and this gets buried and sent straight to DVD. Doesn't make much sense.

I agree that this movie is flawed. But like Office Space, it starts out flawlessly. I love the opening about how they got to where they are in the movie. And the evolution of the name Fuddruckers is classic.