Saturday, March 03, 2007

Was Idiocracy worth burying?

I’m not ashamed to say that I chuckled through every episode of Beavis and Butthead aired by MTV. I was so stunned by its hilarious pop-culture nihilism that I was among the many who went to see Beavis and Butthead do America when it aired in 1996. Although I don’t watch it regularly, I believe Fox’s King of the Hill is singularly funny. And even though Office Space isn’t my favorite cult movie, I appreciated its slacker-funny vibe. Which is why when Mike Judge, who created all of the above, opened his movie Idiocracy via 20th Century Fox in September last year, I was more than curious.

Back in the day, Idiocracy barely registered in the press, had a severely limited release and was all but buried by its studio. Judge’s clout in the mainstream press got it some notice and later when the movie was released on DVD and accessible to a wider audience, conspiratorial murmurs began about how good the movie was and how the studio just didn’t get it. Yes, Hollywood suits can be out of touch with audiences, especially those that Judge seems to have a grip on. But I had to see this for myself.

And after watching Idiocracy, I have to say that I sit on the fence. Idiocracy is a movie confounding in its inconsistency and mired in 80s storytelling. In fact it even looks like a move that could have been made in the big 80s. But it’s still amusing enough that the mishandling of its release by Fox seems a tad baffling.

In the movie, an average Joe, called Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), is asked to participate in a military hibernation experiment. Bauers and a prostitute called Rita (Maya Rudolph) are both “frozen” and unfortunately forgotten. Fast forward to the year 2050 and both are accidentally thawed out (trying to understand the science of all this is not the point). Judge then goes about creating an intellectually dystopian vision of the future. The people of the future have completely lost their ability to think, analyze and articulate. They are all lunkheads – operating technology built for them on autopilot, not quite knowing how to use it correctly or improving it. Bauers is immediately out of place here, taking his time to figure out exactly what is wrong with the future that everything seems so strange.

Judge uses his ability to plumb the depths of behavior to make fun of the human race. Not only have humans become stupid, but they’ve stopped caring entirely. In particular, I enjoyed the scene in which Bauers takes himself to a hospital and describes his symptoms to a nurse at the front desk. The nurse operates a panel with bright buttons that have icons depicting a number of illnesses like headaches, bullet to the head, knife to the head, baby being born, a hurting elbow, etc. As Bauers describes his multiple symptoms the nurses finger hovers over different buttons, finally settling on a pink one that has question marks all over it.

Judge seems to be telling us things are not as different now – this is the way, for example, your fast food order is taken. This is how you find your way around by interacting with an on-board navigation system in your car. More importantly he is showing us how deeply he believes consumerism will embed itself in our lives in the future. Even people are named after products, the one that cracked me up was a guy called Hormel in the movie. A cabinet minister keeps saying “brought to you by Carl’s Jr” in between sentences as an endorsement.

It doesn’t end there. Well known brand names are taken apart quite ruthlessly and this is where the small band of fans the movie has garnered has focused their conspiracy theories. Starbucks has now become a store where men can buy hand jobs. HR Block allows you to file “adult tax returns”. A Costco store is shown as big as a small town, its departments so far apart, you need a shuttle ride to go from one end to another. There are missed opportunities in the script here. Instead of sharp satire, Judge resorts to penile humor.

Politicians aren’t spared either. The US has a black President. But he’s a former Wrestling champion who rides a chopper and guzzles beer during parades. He struts and gesticulates wildly during his speeches like a gleeful pastor on speed. At one point he pulls out a machine gun and dots the air with a round to make his point.

Bauer is hailed as the smartest person in the world and installed as the minister of Interior by the President. His first job, figure out how to make the crops grow.

In a ripe setting like this, Judge could have written a witty script in a dozen different ways. But here is where the movie runs into trouble. Without revealing much, I’ll just say that the prime mover of the plot simply isn’t clever enough. Luke Wilson is cast well – his air of stoner niceness lends itself well to this movie. Maya Rudolph, on the other hand, fumbles the ball although in her defense, it’s a lousy pass to begin with. Still, in an era where a movie like Click can collar millions at the box office, Idiocracy certainly deserved better.

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