The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, September 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Idiocracy

Full review behind the jump


: Mike Judge
: Story by Mike Judge, Screenplay by Mike Judge and Etan Cohen
: Mike Judge, Elysa Koplovitz
: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews, Stephen Root, Sara Rue

You’ll rarely see a movie with funnier backgrounds than
Idiocracy, Mike Judge’s long-delayed live-action follow up to his cult comedy Office Space. It has but one real gag to hang its running time on, and it’s a good one; but it does mean that the success or failure of the movie rests on his ingenuity when it comes to detailing the consequences of his premise.

Judge, creator of
Beavis and Butthead and co-creator of King of the Hill, certainly has a vast imagination for tweaking the banalities of American life, but he’s always walked a fine line – using lowbrow humor both as a means to laughter, and as a means to mock those whose appreciation of comedy stops at that level of sophistication. He’s often in a position of ridiculing his most ardent fans, whether they realize it or not. Big screen sci-fi films may not be the most lucrative place to insult teenagers and make delicate points about the proper orientation of toilet gags, you can see why 20th Century Fox doesn’t quite know what to do with this picture, and is essentially sneaking it into theatres and hoping nobody notices.

The movie is also littered with flaws and awkward spots – this is speculation on my part but it looks like Judge has been forced to work with a budget cripplingly smaller than he’d expected, and didn’t have time to re-configure the movie to work at this level. In spite of these issues, I took a lot of enjoyment away because of all he does get to express in his lovingly dim forecast for the future of America (or Uhhmerica, as it will come to be known).

Our hero is average guy Pvt. Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) of the United States Army. And I don’t just use “average” as a bland descriptor, the reason he’s chosen for a top secret artificial hibernation experiment is that he is, in IQ, physical makeup, and emotional temperament smack at the exact median of modern American society. The Army can’t find an “average female” within their ranks, so they hire prostitute Rita (Maya Rudolph) to fill the other hibernation chamber.

The intent is to keep them in cold storage for only a year, but a mishap leaves them buried and forgotten for centuries, and things are not going well outside. The heavy breeding of the lower-IQ segments of the population, and the endless cultural catering to their denominator, is having a cumulatively drastic effect. When Joe and Rita are jarred awake in 2505, they are by a wide margin the smartest human beings left on the planet.

People have degraded to hostile and almost totally-inarticulate attention-deficit whooping sex fiends, somewhere on the scale of comprehension between lab chimps and the contestants on MTV’s Next. Anyone who can speak in a complete sentence using entirely real words is looked on as “faggy”. Drinking water is a thing of the past, fountains now spew a sports drink called “Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator”. The President (Terry Crews) is a professional wrestling champion who holds forth in “The House of Representin’”, and the most popular celebrity is named “Beef Supreme”. No one really understands how anything works anymore, so they’re dependant on malfunctioning contraptions that look like they were designed by an alliance of Playskool and whoever makes those new fast food ordering kiosks where all you have to do is point at the picture of what you want.

Civilization is essentially collapsed but no one really can pull away from their TV long enough to admit it – in the background you can see a teetering skyscraper has been anchored to its neighboring tower with thick ropes. When Joe takes an aptitude test, the results have him hustled swiftly to the highest corridors of power. The people think he can be their savior; he just wants to get home. Meanwhile, the streetwise Rita is learning that it can be a breeze to get by when your clients are this brainless.

Judge is having an old-fashioned Butthead chuckle over all this, but he’s also making some broad satirical points about what kinds of decisions get made in a society that replaces reason and the rule of law with the Applause-o-meter, and the logical outcome for businesses that compete to reach the basest instincts. This is what makes the backgrounds such a delight, as you’re always spotting some further evidence of the terrifying dim-wittedness of 26th century man, and wondering how he manages to survive. Judge is still an animator by instinct, and enjoys filling the frame with extra jokes – I like the restaurant called “T.J. O’Handjobs”.

But his vision is far wider than his resources – he uses extensive digital rendering to try and keep his scope large (I like the Costco, which is the size of a breakaway republic), and it makes the overall look of the movie at once shiny, scattered and cheap. He’s not able to reconcile the elaborately-costumed human actors, the shoddy practical sets and the grainy imaginary surroundings, and if I had to guess I’d say he didn’t get everything shot he wanted – several passages of the plot must be smoothed over by a voice narration, which is sometimes witty but still a flagrant storytelling Band-Aid.

The actors don’t have a lot of room to make an impression, they have to portray an attitude more than a person, and that’s slippery. Wilson is affably boring, as is his specialty, the task of keeping things lively falls to Dax Shepard as Frito, who is both a lisping dullard and a practicing public defender. He promises to lead Joe to an old time machine, and humor-wise he’s on target reliably enough.

Suffice to say Mike Judge is usually sharper than he is in Idiocracy. It’s got bigger laughs than a lot of what’s out there, but with considerable amateur trappings not everyone will be able to get around. Plus you’ve got to reconcile what it potentially says about you and the fate of your offspring that you find some of this stuff entertaining. Think about that if you can.


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