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November 5, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Underappreciated Gems | November 5, 2008 |

The Tao of Steve is one of those films that fell victim to bad timing, poor advertising, and the generally tough luck of the marketplace. It opened in August 2000, doomed to lose its way among the crowd of X-Men and The Patriot, and it doesn’t help that what’s at heart a sweet and completely genuine romantic comedy was marketed with awful posters making it seem like a National Lampoon sex romp. But The Tao of Steve isn’t one of those films whose fall through the cracks of public awareness is ultimately for the better: This is a smart, well-written, honestly funny indie comedy that examines modern relationships without coming off as preachy or recycled. It also belongs to that blurry edged sub-genre of films in which a man who’s successful at meeting women comes to realize the emptiness of his ways and develops a desire for genuine emotional intimacy. This is a pretty sturdy story concept — Swingers did the same thing only extrapolated the characteristics into two separate protagonists — and director and co-writer Jenniphr Goodman gets a lot of mileage out of it. The film is small, but it never feels cheap; it’s light, but never feels insubstantial. It’s just a good little movie that more people need to discover.

Dex (Donal Logue) is an armchair philosopher and part-time kindergarten teacher in New Mexico who smokes pot, eats like a Viking, and has more sex than even he can brag about. He’s a total schlub, but as the movie opens he’s calmly screwing a married woman in the library stacks at a college reunion, which illustrates both his ability to stroll happily through moral gray zones and the devotion he gives to what he considers to be his life’s master work: mastering the art of getting laid on his own terms. He dogs around, flirts with the coed bartender, and even discusses some of his vague spiritual leanings with a friend who’s become a priest, but his attitude makes it perfectly clear that he’s all about one thing. Goodman has to play this stuff heavy early on because the film isn’t about this guy chasing women; it’s about him coming to the sobering thought that he’s tired of doing it. This makes for a dynamically more interesting comedy, certainly more so than if Dex either never had a change of heart or just recanted in the final scene. Basically, as the movie progresses and Dex imparts more of his worldview to a friend looking for tips on how to get laid, he starts to crumble even as his rules are driven home to the viewer.

But I’m getting way ahead of myself. Hanging out with the guys, Dex spells out for them the difference between being a Steve — a quintessentially cool guy in the vein of Steve McQueen or Steve Austin — and a loveless Stu. Dave (Kimo Willis) is particularly taken with what Dex terms the Tao of Steve, which is basically three rules Dex preaches that are guaranteed to get a guy lucky as well as invert the way he looks at women and pursues them in the first place. Without wasting way too much space getting into the details, the rules are: (1) purge yourself of sexual desire, (2) do something impressive in a woman’s presence, and (3) back away and wait for her curiosity to get the better of her. Again, the point of Dex’s scheming isn’t the question of will he be able to hook up with a woman, but what he sees himself becoming in the long run. Because even as he’s progressively imparting his wit and wisdom to Dave and anyone else who will listen, Dex is spending more time with Syd, played Greer Goodman, sister of director Jenniphr and co-writer of the screenplay. Syd and Dex reconnected at the reunion, but she’s only in town for a short while on business, and her bullshit detector is way to good to fall for any of Dex’s lines. Their interactions are the film’s best, conversations that range from playful to antagonistic to flirting to honest. For lack of a better word, it’s just good cute banter. Like the scene where Dex wakes up in the morning and reaches for his bong:

Syd: Would you describe this as a typical morning for you?
Dex: Hell no. Usually I spend this time cross-training.
Syd: So you smoke pot for breakfast, you work part time, you —
Dex: Have limited potential.

It’s the dialogue that saves the film and keeps it from being just another indie with decent production values and wobbly line readings from struggling actors. The script takes a sharp look at a certain male lifestyle, and Logue delivers big time on the charm required for the role and the emotional nuance required of a character who forces himself to go through some genuine, if not exactly gut-wrenching, self-examination in order to determine what he wants. (There’s a reason the film earned him the best actor award at the Sundance Film Festival that year.)

Additionally, it’s got one of the more listenable pop soundtracks around, the kind that serves almost as a pleasant surprise that accompanies the film. (It’s not unlike watching Clay Pigeons and hearing tracks by Old 97’s and Whiskeytown inside of 15 minutes; sometimes things just work out.) The Tao of Steve is anchored by the bittersweet songwriting of Eytan Mirsky, who churns out completely infectious guitar pop with titles like “All the Things to Do When She Says No” and “When Good Girls Go Bad.” He contributes a song based on the film’s title as well as a cut called “(I Just Wanna Be) Your Steve McQueen,” and they’re the perfect sonic match for the film: Light, snappy, and lovelorn.

The rest of the film follows some pretty predictable paths on the way to the inevitable conclusion, but there’s a genuine ease about the movie, a sense of confidence in its story and pleasure in its words that’s hard to come by. What makes it an adult comedy is that it’s not just about getting women; it’s about the things we do to ourselves, and them, in the process.

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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