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Dumb + Funny = ‘Idiocracy’

Dumb + Funny = 'Idiocracy'

Mike Judge’s long-awaited, live-action follow-up to Office Space has arrived in theaters this weekend after much (?) discussion over its ultra-limited release. Only open in seven cities in North America (paltry for a major studio release) without any advanced critic screenings (and no opening in New York City), early expectations have not been favorable for this much-delayed release. Hell, even the beginning of the film itself is set in 2005. Despite it all, web chatter has been unusually optimistic ahead of this weekend. No surprise, considering it’s this same demographic on the Web that adores Judge’s Office Space and Beavis and Butthead creations (I count myself as one of them).
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After all, many bloggers and critics chimed in that Office Space was considered a failure when it was initially released in theaters. Maybe so… but Office Space received a helluva lot of marketing compared to Idiocracy (both films have been produced and released by 20th Century Fox). I mean, the official Web site of the studio does not even list Idiocracy as one of its current or upcoming releases. How often does that happen? Most distributors will tell you that the commercial viability of a film can be summarized in whether or not an appealing trailer can be cut from the feature. I can’t recall ever seeing a trailer or commercial, and there isn’t one on Apple.com (the Internet’s intersection for coming attractions). But, as soon as the first matinee screenings rolled their closing credits, reviews started piling in from across the nation. And, for the most part, these were fairly positive. It’s highly unlikely for the film to do any business of note (it’s too small for studio box office tracking and too “big” for indie box office tracking), though reportedly, screenings in Austin have been well attended. And, I won’t really go into whether or not I agree with Fox’s strategy… so look elsewhere for that kinda analysis. I’m just here to talk about the film itself.

Idiocracy, like Office Space, was made in Austin (Judge’s homebase). So, I started to think that maybe no one outside of Austin would really care about the new film. Except, there’s been a surprising amount of support online from sources nationwide, rooting for Judge to unveil another cult classic. Well, he hasn’t. Idiocracy is often very funny and very smart, but it certainly drags or falls flat in places where Office Space never did. It’s an epic production full of big ideas. Most of those ideas are delivered with precise comic chops, but some would have been better left in the past.

Beginning with a montage so clever it could exist as its own short film (or could be virally sent around the Web or YouTube as a guerilla marketing campaign), the opening of Idiocracy depicts – with sharp wit – the explanation of how Earth will soon become overpopulated by morons and thinking men/women will become extinct. From that point on, the film follows the saga of an “average Joe” by the name of Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson), a military clerk. Frozen as part of an Army experiment gone awry, Joe and his fellow cryo-mate, Rita (Maya Rudolph), are forgotten until accidentally set free 500 years later, in 2505. They slowly discover that America is now overrun by stupidity to such a degree that Americans speak in a dialect/creole of hillbilly, hip-hop slang, and grunting. Most of the various future-world developments are scathingly hilarious. For example: The most popular film in the country is simply titled Ass, featuring nothing more than a buttocks onscreen for the full feature (we are told this film won several Oscars, including “Best Screenplay”). Meanwhile, the water supply has been replaced with an energy beverage praised for its abundance of electrolytes.

As outrageously funny as some of this is, therein lies the difficulty of the film. In depicting a civilization dominated by idiots who are easily disliked, occasional moments in the film are hard to embrace and come off a bit dull. We understand that Dax Shepard plays a braindead attorney named Frito but does that mean we have to sit and listen to him annoyingly mumble and grunt in every scene? True, it’s meant to be obnoxious and grating… but some scenes have that effect too. In one scene, real-life iBook spokesman Justin Long portrays a dimwitted physician first to discover Joe’s secret. What begins as a charming character soon devolves into over-acting as Long brushes strokes far too wide in trying to capture a moronic reveal. In other words, the monotony of a vacant intellect sometimes bleeds into the tone of the film.

When Joe is appointed the Secretary of Interior after its learned that he has the highest IQ, he begins to spend time with the White House administration. The President (Terry Crews) is a former pro wrestler named Camacho, and like several elements in the story, this is funnier on paper than it plays onscreen. Though, the President’s Cabinet is a delightfully enjoyable cast of mismatched simpletons. Hoping to benefit from Joe’s relative genius, the White House entrusts him with solving the country’s problems. In doing this, he stands alone, except for Rita.

Throwing Joe and Rita on their own as the only smart people in the country, Judge has forgotten the first rule of the “time-travel/fish-out-of-water” genre: there has to be someone or some people living in the future who can relate to our protagonist. You need a guide, an expert, and not just a narrator (as there is here). After all, how could everything work properly? Who builds and designs the transportation, utilities, etc.? Obviously somebody, and if Joe (along with the audience) would have spent any time with them, the overall experience probably would have been more convincing. As it stands, Idiocracy is often incredibly very funny. The pointed jabs at the state of America are spot-on, and obviously come from a very intelligent mind. Somehow, though, the execution of the film feels stalled. For instance, the running time is relatively short (85 minutes) and the visual effects are a bit incomplete (reportedly, the cost of finishing these effects was one of the sour spots between Mike Judge and the studio).

The appeal of Idiocracy is similar to the appeal in all of Judge’s work. He understands how to poke fun at the unattractive elements of our daily life. So why wasn’t Office Space, a comedy about the monotony and boredom of corporate America, also monotonous and boring at times? It’s tough to say, but several factors (casting, tone) seem appropriately different. The sheer magnitude of what Idiocracy tries to pull off, transcends any office setting. Maybe Idiocracy would have worked better as a TV series or mini-series. What you have now is a film that may be too smart for its own good. The ideas are so piercing and so overwhelming, it’s almost hard to contain them within 90 minutes. Let’s face it, this is black comedy, shining a depressing light on how hideous our future prospects really might be. In that case, tone is crucial. But, is Idiocracy the abysmal disaster some had feared? Nowhere close. Trust me, there are many more films in cinemas today that are truly awful. Idiocracy, on the other hand, is simply flawed.

So, is Mike Judge to blame if you think Idiocracy is a terrific premise but an imperfect product? Not at all. Bravo to him for attempting to tell a critical and barbed story of our not-so-impossible future. And, bravo to him for some truly big laughs. Maybe too few for a 7-year wait, but more than enough to satisfy the cynic in us all.

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