(2006, directed by Mike Judge, 84 min., U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
Can Big Business take a joke? Maybe not, as Mike Judge appears to have found out with his latest film Idiocracy, which quietly slipped out on DVD a few weeks ago. Although wildly uneven, Idiocracy is one of the most eccentric Hollywood comedies ever produced, and further solidifies the creator of “Beavis and Butthead” and “King of the Hill” as one of the truly subversive voices in mass entertainment.
So why did 20th Century Fox, which surely would like to keep a talent as successful as Judge around, sit on the film for a couple years, then dump it unceremoniously into a handful of theaters and finally not even advertise the DVD release on their website? Neither Judge nor Fox is saying anything about the film’s troubled post-production, and maybe the closest we’ll ever get to knowing is a comment a Fox spokesman made to the Austin Statesman-Chronicle saying the film’s handing was “was an executive decision from the Chairman.” If I had to take a guess, this Chairman might be the guy suffering with a humor impairment.
So if you’re looking across the New Releases section of your local video store and you see the lame box art with Luke Wilson (Owen’s less-stoned brother) shrugging his shoulders wearing a “No Brains” t-shirt, don’t be so quickly scared off (it took me weeks before I finally turned the box over). If Devo had recorded a rock opera it might have had Idiocracy’s premise: a lazy soldier (Wilson) is sent with a prostitute (SNL’s Maya Rudolph) into the future where intelligence has sharply declined, leaving a populace that wanders around in the rubble like name-branded Tourette’s-spouting cavemen.
Tracing the tone of Judge’s satiric projects, we’ve seen them go from adolescent jeering (Beavis and Butthead Do America, ’93), to affectionate kidding (King of the Hill, ’97) to bored frustration (Office Space, ’99) to Idiocracy’s violent disgust. If Fox wanted to issue a defense for burying Idiocracy, it might be that its satire is too lacerating, that Judge’s judgement of the U.S. population is too ugly for comedy.
Just take the character of Luke’s lawyer, Frito (there are characters named Velveeta, Tylenol and Mountain Dew as well). When we meet him he’s sitting on his recliner/toilet watching the top-rated “Ow, My Balls” on TV. His vocabulary is so stilted he sounds like he’s mentally-handicapped, he pantomimes any sexual thoughts that pop into his head and he accuses Wilson’s character of “talking like a fag” because he uses complete sentences. Okay, so maybe lawyers haven’t changed that much, but that’s a lot of grotesquery for a comedy to swim through. But once you do? Well, let the laughs begin! Not since Dr. Strangelove has a comedy asked us to bust a gut over such a nightmare, and Idiocracy has some classic scenes that never had a chance to ruined by TV ads.
Judge’s background is in cartoons and TV, and despite Office Space’s success, his skill at sustaining a story over a feature film’s length still seems a bit slack. Idiocracy ambles aimlessly for 20 minutes until it sends its two main characters into the future, and the film’s best moments are still skit-like bits, especially when Wilson visits the future’s ramshackle hospital and prison system (which truth be told doesn’t look any worse thanour current ones, but has one image more funny and disturbing than anything seen on HBO’s “Oz.”).
The fact that Fox scrimped on the FX budget is only too apparent as well, which along with its overreliance on narration, furthers the film’s impression of being unfinished. Truth is, successful popular comedies are rarely marvels of construction, and you could easily make the case that Luke Wilson’s last film, My Super Ex-Girlfriend deserved dumping as well. Could the issue for the Fox Chairman possibly be simply the depiction of the Corporation and the U.S. consumer?
By now we’re all used to the type of gentle ribbing some corporations take in modern comedies, but mostly they rename the company, such as when Judge’s Office Space shows Jennifer Aniston waiting tables at a TGI Friday’s stand-in named Chotchkie’s. This sort of weak-kneed substitution has become so taken for granted that it is a bit jaw-dropping when Luke Wilson starts surveying the future’s landscape and finds many recognizable businesses have expanded their services. Starbucks, for example, resembles a Bourbon Street bordello whose menu offers a “Full-Body Latte”; Carl’s Jr. assumes custody of the children of customers who can’t pay, and Fuddrucker’s name has been changed so that it explicitly means “anal sex”. Fox News has even survived, anchored by shirtless bodybuilders and women wearing lingerie.
Is it the world, 500 years from now? Maybe 10 or 20, tops. I probably didn’t laugh as much as I did at Office Space but I’ve thought about Judge’s morbid vision of the future every day since I watched it, whether while reading advertising on the urinal mats or when saying a bank’s name when talking about the Eagles’ stadium. What can you say about a film as funny as “Chappelle’s Show” and as unnerving as An Inconvenient Truth? Fox decided Idiocracy wasn’t fit to be screened publicly in Philadelphia, but fear not, it can be viewed today in your very own home.