23 February 2008

Movielog, Idiocracy

Idiocracy, 2006
Written and Directed by Mike Judge
84 minutes

Mike Judge doesn't have one career as a writer/director -- he has two. In one, he's a skilled writer-director-producer crafting precise (if broad) characters and navigating them through strange universes and situations to illuminate cultural absurdity. In the other, he creates broad stereotypes and makes them do silly things for dumb laughs. And while the premise of Idiocracy seems to imply that it will belong to the former category of Judge's films, it instead fails miserably as it embraces the latter.

Luke Wilson plays Joe Bauers, a nobody army grunt sitting on his ass as a librarian (a character detail that I thought would become relevant later, but is dropped by the movie as soon as it's mentioned) when he is drafted into an experiment in human hibernation. He and a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph) are to be frozen for a year as a demonstration of the technique -- unfortunatley circumstances intervene and our two protagonists are left frozen for five hundred years, awaking in the year 2505.

The future, however, is not a gleaming paradise of brilliant people in jumpsuits, but is instead the opposite -- a decaying society filled with incredibly stupid people. You see, as the movie explains in a sort of prologue, while intelligent people of our present delay having kids, holding off for a more prepared future, maintaining their resources, et cetera, the dumb rednecks and hillbilly white trash of society don't care about such niceties, and their populations explode, eventually taking over the Earth. I know it's churlish to complain of a silly comedy that, no, Virginia, evolution simply doesn't work that way.... But you know what, it's that very inattention to detail and to reality that makes this such a blisteringly bad movie.

Consider the cartoon here. The cartoonist is making fun of stupid multiplex fare, sure -- that's satire against large media companies, who assuredly have the power to fight back. But the cartoonist's main point is to poke at the stupid toothless hicks who watch and appreciate that garbage, in the kind of broad and stupid way that is transparently insulting. Idiocracy is this cartoon blown up onto the big screen and projected for ninety minutes; one of the TV programs that is popular in Judge's imagined future is Ow, My Balls!, in which a hapless victim is shown having his nutsack kicked, bitten, etc. for the length of the show. Judge's emphasis is not on the show itself, but on the idiotic simpleton Frito (Dax Shepard) watching it enraptured whilst sitting on his Lazy-Boy with a toilet in it. Judge's point seems to be, Yeah, you like to see stupid pratfall humor? Well Fuck You!

There's an anger to Idiocracy that seems almost pathological. Aside from the TV shows, the most popular movie in the country is called simply Ass, the entire length of which is a close-up on a male ass, occasionally farting. This kind of material can certainly be made funny given the right kind of comic perspective, the same way that stale jokes about fax machines that eat paper and mindless layers of management were brought to such sharp comic focus in Judge's Office Space. Perhaps the world of 2505 could be made up not so much of really dumb people, but of people lulled into complacency and mediocrity by the contempt shown them by media conglomerates. To re-reflect Judge's mirror to modern-day society, in essence arguing that people don't watch Flavor of Love because they're stupid, but because of the race-to-the-bottom among TV executives convinced that all we want to watch is programming on the level of Flavor of Love.

Or maybe play against audience expectations in another way. Show a society composed of dumb people hostile towards people of even marginal intelligence, but maybe when Luke Wilson shows up, he's discovered by a group of underground nerds of 2505 (who might be simply people of normal intelligence today) who adopt him as one of their own. Maybe they have a secret society where they enjoy their marginally-better entertainment, and then themselves shun the real nerds who would qualify as intelligent and "faggy" (as the film uses the term) today. This kind of focus, done properly, might reflect on our own attitude towards people seen as more intelligent/cultured than ourselves, and would actually give some direction to the satire. But it becomes clear as Judge gives us a society of people so dumb they more resemble zombies than people, moaning and staring off into space, occasionally digging in the dirt with sticks, that nothing of that kind of subtlety will be present.

Is there anything salvageable here? Well, yeah -- there are hints of satire here and there, as with corporate sponsorships of everything in sight, and in the way that the hospital intake processing resembles the process by which one runs a register at McDonald's. And the way the scientist who originally sends the two average nobodies into hibernation (Michael McCafferty) becomes enamored with the lifestyle of Rita's pimp. And of the amazing production design and art, much of it seeminly done with matte paintings, which give this world a kind of realism that the script fails to.

Overall, this is an amazingly bad film, a film that wears thin after even an hour and a half. Idiocracy was placed on the shelf for a year or two after completion, and having seen the finished project, it's not hard to see why. It's a failure on nearly every level, a failure of imagination, of writing, direction.... I could sit down with this movie and criticize harshly elements of nearly every scene, and it's that kind of thing that makes me wish that Judge had included a commentary on the DVD, to explain and/or justify the choices he made in choosing to make this movie. I'm still interested in seeing the future films of Mike Judge (and King of the Hill is still genius after all these years), but this one is just an abjectly bad movie, and I'll be happy to never see it again.

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