Doing Nothing Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be
Idiocracy / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | September 1, 2006 | Comments ()
It’s amazing how many people love the works of Mike Judge without knowing who he is. He’s a writer/director whose name is oddly divorced from his greatest hits. Not that many people sit around and think fondly of Judge’s name when watching “Beavis and Butt-Head” or “King of the Hill”; even fewer bow to the man for giving us Office Space, a film that’s become a deeply ingrained part of pop culture for America’s current cubicle-dwellers, a comedy that sits on the shelves of practically every dorm room in the country despite only finding life on home video and DVD. Maybe it’s because Judge isn’t your typical writer/director: Aside from doing cartoon voices, his presence is a sly one onscreen, though his role as an annoying restaurant boss in Office Space is the reason everyone you know still makes jokes about “pieces of flair.” Maybe it’s his attitude toward the industry: Judge lives in Austin and seems pretty content to just keep doing what he likes to do, rules be damned. But I’d say it’s because Judge is more focused on telling jokes than making you remember he’s the one who told them. He’s a million miles away from, say, Quentin Tarantino, who would cease to exist and disappear in a puff of smoke if you for one moment enjoyed one of his films for its story or color or anything that distracted you from the fact that you were watching A Quentin Tarantino Film. For Judge, funny is just funny, and he’s content to let the quiet observational style of “King of the Hill” or the self-loathing appeal of destroying modern life speak for itself. That’s what makes his latest film, the comedy Idiocracy, doubly unfulfilling: It’s not just a mediocre film, but a disappointment that such a talented writer could stumble so badly.
Shot in Austin on what appears to be a cruelly low budget, Idiocracy tells the tale of Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), an Army private who’s recruited to participate in a human-freezing experiment. Joe is picked because he’s completely average, from intelligence to health to leadership ability. From the start, Joe is clearly a Judge man, following in the footsteps of Peter Gibbons before him: When Joe is approached for the project by Sgt. Keller (Robert Musgrave, aka Bob Mapplethorpe, potential get-away driver), he declines the offer, stating his desire to keep working the night shift in an old warehouse for the next eight years until his pension comes through. But Joe is forced into undergoing the freezing process, along with Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute who’s brought on because, well, Joe’s going to need a love interest, and Rita’s profession allows the viewer the pleasure of an Army general discoursing on the nature of a pimp’s love. Joe and Rita go into deep freeze, but when scandal and cutbacks rock the armed forces, the project is forgotten, and the pods re-open in 2505, stranding Joe and Rita in a hostile future. The first few scenes hammer home some big laughs; sadly, the film then begins to lose energy and never quite makes it back to the level promised at the outset. It’s a sad mirror of the societal dumbing-down Judge imagines will happen to American society, as the film’s continued efforts to entertain reap fewer and fewer results.
That’s the kicker in Judge’s script: Absent any predators, Darwinism begins to reward those that breed the most, leading to an American population boom among morons. By the time Joe awakens from his cryogenic nap, the country is overflowing with landfills and starving from an unexplained dustbowl phenomenon. Water fountains distribute sports drink, since major corporations long ago bought out the FDA, and everyone communicates in a kind of ghetto slang. Joe tries to get help at a hospital, only to have a doctor (Justin Long) tell him that he “talks like a fag” and is “all retarded.” It’s another entertaining sequence, but as I was watching it, I wasn’t even sure how Joe had gotten there. Instead of progressing through a story, or even just coasting along a thin narrative and mining it for laughs (see Office Space), Idiocracy feels like a series of half-planned scenes that have been hastily stitched together in hopes of forming a cohesive whole. The film is narrated throughout by an omniscient storyteller whose sole function, it soon becomes clear, is to gloss over the wild breaks in the story. But the device backfires, making the film feel like a Cliffs Notes version of itself: I could never shake the feeling that there’s a longer, more engaging version of the movie that no one will ever see.
When Joe realizes his predicament, he runs around trying to find answers and is eventually arrested for not having the UPC barcode that has become a standard fixture on people’s wrists in the future. His lawyer, Frito (Dax Shepard), is a grunting imbecile who actually winds up assisting in Joe’s conviction. Soon enough Joe’s on his way to prison, only to escape before entering, at which point he sets out to rendezvous with Rita and make his way to a time machine he learned about from Frito. All is going pretty poorly when Joe’s recaptured and brought to the White House, since an IQ test Joe took upon incarceration revealed him to be the smartest person on the planet, so smart that the president, who’s also a wrestler and a porn star, enlists Joe to help solve the nation’s economic and agricultural problems. Damn, that was a mouthful just to type. You can imagine what it feels like to sit through it. Joe bounces from one “wacky” situation to the next, and it’s only Wilson’s affable aplomb that keeps the whole thing from sinking.
Wilson’s a good choice to play average Joe: He’s nonthreateningly handsome, and he’s proven himself to be a reliable straight man in everything from Rushmore to Old School, with an Anchorman cameo thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, he’s the strongest of a very weak cast. Rudolph is hampered by the stupidity of playing Rita, a character that brings nothing to the table and hangs like dead weight on the screenplay. Shepard has gotten less annoying since his “Punk’d” days, but he faces a similar problem: He’s got nothing to do. Judge’s screenplay suffers from its high-concept origins and has nowhere to go but down. The film’s cheap look doesn’t help, either, a result of trying to do too much with too little. Office Space took advantage of its natural Texas setting by shooting thriftily in actual locations like office parks and apartment complexes. But Idiocracy tries to create an entirely new and detailed vision of the future using what feels like the same amount of cash, and the film’s production winds up feeling meager and picked-over, as if Judge had to use the same seven extras and a handful of fake posters to create a 26th-century cityscape.
The glory of Office Space that raised it from just another office to satire to an endlessly watchable (and quotable) comedy was its supporting cast of characters: Milton, Michael Bolton, Samir, Lumbergh. The characters and dialogue were compelling and, even better, relatable. Given that, it’s shocking that Judge couldn’t imbue his latest idea — a critique of America’s growing pride in its stupidity — with any of the same verve or wit of his earlier works. I guess Judge spent so much time writing about stupid people that he forgot how to write smart on his own.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
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